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December 2010

The University of North Carolina -- at Malawi

Earlier this month, I spent several days in southern Africa. Why? I needed to see the vital work that Carolina is doing there for myself.

We often talk about Carolina's global reach, but the point really comes home when you visit a place like Malawi, where we've been working since 1990. The university's presence in this small, sub-Saharan nation is significant. At least 32 faculty members from eight different disciplines have ongoing projects and travel to Malawi once a year or more. Six faculty members live there full time. About 25 students work in Malawi each year. They include short-term visits by undergraduates in service or research projects; pre-doctoral students doing research or patient care; residents and fellows on senior clinical rotations; along with other scholars and fellows there for longer stints.

There is much to do in Malawi. The country only has two physicians per 100,000 people, and the average life expectancy is 39 years. High rates of HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases strain the country's limited health-care infrastructure. We have humanitarian reasons for helping the people of Malawi, who face so many challenges. And that has rightly been a passion driving progress for people like Mike Cohen, Charlie van der Horst and Irving Hoffman.

But our work in Malawi is not just a mission of mercy; it also is an integral part of our own mission of research, education and public service.

For example, while UNC Project-Malawi provides free clinical care to more than 1,700 patients per week at its headquarters in Lilongwe, about 20 research studies also are being conducted there at any given time.

The results of one recent ground-breaking study on an HIV-fighting syrup for babies may turn the tide on the transmission of HIV from mothers to their children. This study and others give our faculty and students valuable information about HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, malaria and tuberculosis, as well as nutrition, water, cancer, family planning, surgery and trauma. What they learn not only helps the people of Malawi, but also advances disease prevention and care back home in North Carolina.

We're educating not only our students to be the doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dentists and health-care workers of the future, but we're also bolstering the education and training of the health work force in Malawi.

Part of the reason for the long-term success of UNC Project-Malawi is that Carolina has ensured that many people have been trained in Malawi to lead the clinics on the ground. The education extends all the way to the patients themselves, who are taught by their fellow Malawians in ways that are culturally familiar and effective. I got chills listening to the nurses in the Bwaila antenatal clinic lead the women and children there in teaching songs set to the tunes of well-known Malawian folk songs. The lyrics say things like "get the father tested" and "fight the virus to make our nation strong."

For anyone still not convinced that UNC's work in Malawi is not only vital in that faraway country but also here at home, let's crunch some numbers. We were awarded about $10.6 million in grants for our research in Malawi this year, which comes to us here in Chapel Hill. These grants support the salaries of faculty who provide care to North Carolinians and teach our students in Chapel Hill.

For me, seeing is believing. I knew UNC-Project Malawi was worthwhile before I set foot in Lilongwe, but the passion the Tar Heels there have for the work that Carolina is doing inspired and moved me. That kind of dedication is a benefit you can't put a price on. The feeling that I got from meeting these amazing people kept me as warm as the African sun for a long time after I returned to the snow and ice on the Hill.



Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at

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