At Top Medical Schools, WHO Program Plays “Critical” Role For Nurses In Training

April 17, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem
Many student nurses at Johns Hopkins have been treating coronavirus patients in the biocontainment unit of the university’s hospital.

WASHINGTON – Scores of public health experts responded with shock and anger this week to the decision by the White House to halt U.S. funding to the World Health Organization.

The move, announced by President Donald Trump on Tuesday, comes as the world struggles to contain a pandemic that has killed more than 140,000 people, infected millions, and slowed the global economy to a grind.

According to a statement issued by President Trump, his reasons for halting the funding while a review takes place include the WHO’s decision to oppose travel restrictions from China and other nations, and “the WHO failed to adequately obtain and share information in a timely and transparent fashion.”

Trump’s decision to temporarily stop funding the WHO was prompted by a belief that the organization botched its initial response to the coronavirus outbreak. The president has faced similar accusations from critics at home as the U.S. continues to have the world’s highest death tolls, with more than 31,000 lives lost.

Since 1948, the WHO has played a key role in fighting deadly disease outbreaks by working with government agencies and top research institutions around the world. The organization helped eradicate smallpox in the 1970s, fought polio to near-eradication, and recently assisted the development of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus. 

But it has also helped shape future generations of healthcare workers at some of America’s top medical schools.

Many of the nation’s leading nursing programs –– Johns Hopkins University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan, Columbia University -– are members of the WHO Collaborating Centres for Nursing and Midwifery (CCNM), a global network that helps nurses learn from each other while sharing important healthcare data. 

Since 2018, the School of Nursing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has spearheaded CCNM as the Secretariat of the program, a position that rotates every four years.

Patricia Davidson, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, said that CCNM has been particularly helpful during the pandemic as nurses learn how to treat patients infected with the coronavirus. The network, established in 1988, comprises 44 schools across the world, from Thailand’s Chiang Mai University to the University of Chile.

“These collaborating centers provide really critical resources and infrastructure to deal with complex challenges that the world is facing, from COVID-19 to more broadly, infection control and a whole range of other issues,” said Davidson, who serves as secretary general of CCNM.

As part of the program, the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing has welcomed dozens of visiting scholars from foreign universities, including from Wuhan, the Chinese city where experts believe the coronavirus outbreak started. 

Maintaining strong relationships with schools and nurses around the world comes in handy, Davidson said. Students from Wuhan recently sent 1,000 masks, including many coveted N95 respirators, to Johns Hopkins’ nursing program. The donation comes at a time when healthcare workers across America are dealing with a severe shortage of personal protective equipment.

Johns Hopkins doesn’t rely on the World Health Organization for funding to run the CCNM network. Still, Davidson said she feels the Trump administration’s decision to defund the organization is unfortunate.

“I think it’s a very sad thing in the context of where the world is at the moment,” Davidson said of the White House’s decision. “What COVID-19 has told us is that viruses have no boundaries, and that across the world we are inextricably linked and interconnected,” she added.

The U.S. government is the WHO’s top donor, having contributed $893 million — nearly 15 percent of the organization’s finances — to its 2018-2019 budget cycle.

Hillary Chu, a nursing student at Johns Hopkins, has recently been thrust into the fight against the coronavirus as an assistant nurse at the university’s hospital. She helps treat COVID-19 patients at the hospital’s biocontainment unit, a negative air-pressure facility that reduces the risk of airborne contagion.

Learning how to work with coronavirus patients has been both challenging and stressful due to strict decontamination procedures, Chu said. “Initially, I was crying once a week,” she said. The recent influx of coronavirus patients has forced the hospital to expand the biocontainment unit to cover an entire floor. 

But with graduation around the corner, Chu said there’s a true sense of community and commiseration among students. “We’re all sort of stereotypical nurses –– we want to help, we want to take care of each other,” she said.

As part of her involvement with the WHO’s CCNM network, Chu has been organizing a nursing conference with the University of Chiangmai in Thailand.

“Nurses are the majority of the world’s healthcare workers and so the more we can share knowledge and training, the better,” Chu said.

Chu believes Trump’s decision to defund the WHO is a mistake. “I think that would be a very foolish thing to do at this stage,” said Chu. “Health agencies need more funding right now, not less.” 

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