Dr. Rasha Kelej in an exclusive cover interview with Hope Magazine from Rwanda



Dr Rasha Kelej, can you start by introducing Merck Foundation for us?

Merck Foundation is the Philanthropic arm of Merck KGaA Germany. It is non-profit organization that aims to improve health and wellbeing of people and advance their lives through science and technology. Our efforts are primarily focussed on raising awareness about non-communicable diseases, empowering women and youth, improving access to innovative healthcare solutions in under-served communities, building healthcare and scientific research capacity in the fields of diabetes, hypertension, cancer and fertility care in underserved communities. Our vision is to see a world where everyone can lead a healthy and fulfilling life.

The Foundation seems to be so fond of Africa, why the interest, many will ask?

Prof Frank Stangenberg Haverkamp, the Chairperson of E-Merck KG and Merck foundation is very fond of Africa, believe in its potentiality. Furthermore, there are many challenges in Africa with regards to healthcare and this is our speciality we can help, and this is what we do, and we do it well. But we also focus on Asia and we will expand to Latin America in 2020. 

It has been a hectic year for you and the foundation and we will like to visit some of the initiatives you undertook, can you shed some light on this?

As you can see we have established many partnerships with First Ladies, we have visited Chad, and in line with First Lady of Chad, H.E. HINDA DEBY ITNO and we visited Niger too and launched with H.E. AISSATA ISSOUFOU MAHAMADOU, The First Lady of Niger. And Gambia with H.E. FATOMATTOU BAH BARROW And Central African Republic with H.E. BRIGITTE TOUADORA 
During our last annual conference in Senegal, 5th edition of Merck Foundation Africa Asia Luminary in Dakar, Senegal which was presided over by President of Senegal, H.E. MACKY SALL, we established the partnership with First Lady of Botswana H.E. NEO JANE MASISI, The first Lady Ghana H.E. REBECCA NAA OKAIKOR AKUFO-ADDO, the First Lady of Burundi H.E. DENISE NKURUNZIZA, the First Lady of Sierra Leone H.E. FATIMA MAADA BIO and the First Lady of Zambia H.E. ESTHER LUNGU.
Also, we will soon launch in Liberia with first LADY of Liberia. We have also established partnership with first LADY of Guinea Conakry and all of them accepted gracefully to be ambassadors of Merck More Than a Mother to empower infertile women in their countries. And they are working with us to implement all programs to build health care capacity in partnership with their ministries of health. We have also established partnership with ministry of health in each of their country and in other countries such as; Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia. 

H.E. REBECCA NAA OKAIKOR AKUFO-ADDO, The First Lady of Ghana; H.E. BRIGITTE TOUADERA, The First Lady of Central Africa Republic;  H.E. NEO JANE MASISI, The First Lady of Botswana; H.E. AISSATA ISSOUFOU MAHAMADOU, The First Lady of Niger; H.E. HINDA DEBY ITNO, The First Lady of Chad; Dr. Rasha Kelej, CEO of Merck Foundation; H.E. MACKY SALL, The President of Senegal; H.E. MARIEME FAYE SALL, The First Lady of Senegal; H.E. FATIMA MAADA BIO, The First Lady of Sierra Leone; H.E. ESTHER LUNGU, The First Lady of Zambia; H.E. DENISE NKURUNZIZA, The First Lady of the Republic of Burundi  

The Foundation supported the training of more than 40 Oncologists through a fellowship program, why oncology, what was the selection criteria and does the program have any future or it was just a onetime thing?

Launched in 2016, Merck Oncology Fellowship Program is an on-going initiative, which focuses on building professional cancer care capacity with the aim to increase the limited number of oncologists in Africa and Developing countries. The program provides One-and two year Fellowship and master degree from Cairo University - Egypt, Tata memorial Centre in India and Malaya University in Malaysia and specially created two year Oncology fellowship with university of Nairobi, Kenya, in partnership with African First Ladies Offices and Ministries of Health, Local Governments and Academia.

So far, over 43 candidates from more than 21 African countries have been rolled in the Merck Oncology Fellowship Program. We specially reach out to countries that do not have even single oncologists such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia or have only very few such as Chad, Niger and Central African Republic and Guinea. It is our vision to create a strong platform of African specialists in these countries.  

We also had the first Merck Health Media Training to break the stigma around infertility in Africa, may we know the logic behind the focus on infertility and liaising with the media?

According to WHO data 2016, one in every four couples in Africa and developing countries are infertile which means that there is 180 M couples are infertile. Incidence is much higher than in Europe and developed countries which around maximum 8% to 9%, very high percentage of infertility is die to untreated infectious diseases which result from child marriage, unsafe abortion, unsafe delivery, STDs and genital mutation. Hence prevention is very important. 

More importantly, in many cultures’ women suffers discrimination, mistreatment and violence due to her inability to bear children, although 50% of infertility cases are due to male infertility, therefore we need to create a culture shift to respect women whether they are mothers or not, encourage men to speak up about their infertility and support their wives through the treatment journey. I strongly believe in the power of art and media. They are critical partners to address such sensitive topics. We have produced many projects of songs, and now we are going to produce drama (plays and documentaries) with African talents across the continent.  It will be the first and we will be creating a culture shift, raising awareness and exploring African talents. 

We started "Merck More Than a Mother" campaign in 2015 now it is in 35 countries in Africa and Asia. It aims to empower infertile women through access to information, education and health and by changing mind-sets. This historic initiative supports governments in defining policies to enhance access to regulated, safe and effective fertility care. It also defines interventions to break the stigma around infertile women and raises awareness about infertility prevention and management.

Merck Foundation has many First Ladies to be Merck More Than a Mother ambassador in their countries such as FL of Niger, Chad, Gambia, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Botswana, Zambia, Burundi, Ghana, Guinea and Gambia and more. This speaks volume about the work we are doing and the potential impact that is expected. 

Also, part of the campaign is our Merck Embryology & Fertility Training Program, a three-month hands-on practical course to establish the platform of fertility specialists across Africa and Asia. Merck Foundation provides clinical and practical training for fertility specialists and embryologists in more than 35 countries across Africa and Asia such as: Chad, Niger, Central African Republic, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Nigeria, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea Conakry, Sierra Leon, Liberia, Cameron, Rwanda, Botswana, DR Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Gambia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia. So far more than 80 candidates have taken the training. 

Merck Foundation is making history in many African countries where they never had fertility specialists, by training the first fertility specialists such as; in Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia, Niger, Chad, and Guinea.  

Merck Foundation has also supported the establishment of the first ever Public IVF centres in Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda. 

You have met many leaders; do you see a genuine commitment on their part to seriously tackle the issues around health care in Africa? 

We have witnessed great commitment from our discussion with many heads of states such as the President of Niger, H.E.MAHAMADOU ISSOUFOU; President of Chad, H.E. IDRISS DÉBY; President of Central African Republic, H. E. FAUSTIN-ARCHANGE TOUADÉRA and previous President of Liberia, MADAM ELLEN SEAEAF JONSON and Prime minister of Uganda, Mr. Ruhakana Rugunda and Vice President of Tanzania, Dr Samia Suluhu and last but not the least, President of Senegal, H.E. MACKY SALL. All of them supported our efforts and endorsed our long-term commitment to build healthcare capacity in partnership with their ministries of health. They all pledged our partnership and facilitate our work to achieve our vision, which is improving healthcare sector and serving the underserved communities in a quality and equitable way. 

Senegal also hosted the 5th edition of the Merck Africa Asia Luminary, how did the forum go and what were some of the outcome?

This conference was very special since it was presided by the president of Senegal H.E. MACKY SALL who led 10 African First Ladies and 15 ministers of health and 1000 participants from 57 countries. The First Ladies accepted gracefully to become Ambassadors of Merck more than a Mother Campaign and the long-term partnership with Merck foundation with the aim to build healthcare capacity in their countries and to empower infertile women and break the stigma around infertility in Africa and Asia. 

It took me a lot of efforts and time to bring all of them on board and after this successful conference I will start executing the programs in each country to improve access to equitable healthcare solution. 

My first state visit after this conference was to Central African Republic in November. I will now be visiting Botswana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Zambia and Burundi as invited by First Ladies there. 

I will also visit soon Ghana since we are going to conduct the next edition there with H.E, First Lady of Ghana. She is waiting for us to start working immediately. 

How do you envisage the future of health care in Africa and the partnerships that Merck foundation is forging across the continent?

I think the future will be brighter if we cooperate together. The magnitude of the health challenges is very big to be addresses by one organization. The secret is in the private public partnership and to really get things done by being hands on.

No time for talking anymore. We need to talk only when we talk about our impact and way forward. 

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About Merck Foundation

The Merck Foundation, established in 2017, is the philanthropic arm of Merck KGaA Germany, aims to improve the health and wellbeing of people and advance their lives through science and technology. Our efforts are primarily focused on improving access to quality & equitable healthcare solutions in underserved communities, building healthcare and scientific research capacity and empowering people in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) with a special focus on women and youth. All Merck Foundation press releases are distributed by e-mail at the same time they become available on the Merck Foundation Website.  Please visit www.merck-foundation.com to read more. To know more, reach out to our social media: Merck Foundation; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Flicker.

About Merck

Merck is a leading science and technology company in healthcare, life science and performance materials. Almost 52,000 employees work to further develop technologies that improve and enhance life – from biopharmaceutical therapies to treat cancer or multiple sclerosis, cutting-edge systems for scientific research and production, to liquid crystals for smartphones and LCD televisions.

Founded in 1668, Merck is the world's oldest pharmaceutical and chemical company. The founding family remains the majority owner of the publicly listed corporate group. Merck holds the global rights to the Merck name and brand. The only exceptions are the United States and Canada, where the company operates as EMD Serono, MilliporeSigma.