UGA researcher receives NIH Fogarty grant to improve health in Liberia

War exposure, gender-based violence, and extreme poverty following 14 years of civil war in Liberia has resulted in mental and sexual health challenges in that country that place young pregnant women and their unborn children at risk.

To address the needs of this vulnerable population, Tamora Callands, Ph.D., an assistant research scientist in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavior at the University of Georgia College of Public Health, was recently awarded a five-year, $656,348 grant from the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health.

The International Research Scientist Development Award (IRSDA) provides junior U.S. scientists with the opportunity to expand their training in global health research, while preparing them for independent research careers. This award is similar to other NIH career development awards but requires grantees to spend 50 percent of the grant period conducting research in a developing country.

Callands will be working with the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and the University of Liberia to understand how contextual factors impact the mental and sexual health of Liberia’s young pregnant woman and develop interventions that will lead to improved health and parenting skills.

“Because we all move around in a social context, everyone is more or less a product – an amalgamation – of different influences that affect our behavior. These can be a person’s community, school, family, their role as a sibling, or perhaps their religious upbringing,” Callands said.

In the case of Liberia, Callands explained, a large part of the risk behavior that occurs is a result of the country’s political strife.

Liberia is still recovering from the lingering effects of two civil wars that from 1989 to 2003 defined the daily lives of its citizens, leaving 250,000 people dead and plunging the country into social and economic upheaval.  The effect on the healthcare system was especially severe. Ninety-five percent of Liberia’s healthcare facilities were destroyed during the fighting.

Today, over 90 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, and health indicators in Liberia, including life expectancy and infant mortality, are among the worst in the world.

Under conditions such as these, said Callands, providing for one’s family is done by any means necessary.  “In many cases that involves engaging in risk behavior, particularly sexual risk behavior which may compromise their health,” she said.

Callands explained that young pregnant women are especially vulnerable, since the lack of skilled healthcare practitioners and appropriate facilities often leaves them to seek traditional remedies that do more harm than good.

“My aim is to provide these young women with skills to build healthy romantic and familial relationships and support networks, increase parenting competence, and reduce mental health problems associated with parenting,” Callands said.

News Release at UGA News Services, ColumnsMedia coverage also at Athens Banner Herald.

Posted October 11, 2013.