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Canada should help train more Africans in health care, doctor says

Kwadwo Ohene Asante arrived in Canada from Ghana more than 50 years ago. He became a pre-eminent pediatrician who helped countless Canadians and an international expert in understanding fetal-alcohol syndrome stemming from his work in northern B.C.

At 77 years old, Dr. Asante is now trying to turn the tables and have Canada give something back to Ghana.

However, his highly respected work, honoured with a Governor-General's Meritorious Service Medal, has not led to much support in Canada for medical services in Ghana.

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With some frustration in his voice, Dr. Asante said Sunday that government aid agencies and universities have turned down requests to help train Ghanaian students in Canada or contribute to a neuroscience centre at the Korle-Bu hospital in Ghana.

He referred to the irony of Canada being reluctant to help improve medical services in Ghana while many Ghanaians and others from African help maintain health services in Canada.

"I am disappointed, considering all the contributions from the Third World people who have kept the Canadian medical services going. I thought at least Canadian institutions would be glad to train some people," he said in an interview from his home in Maple Ridge, B.C., 40 kilometres from downtown Vancouver.

Ghana has only five neurosurgeons and two neurologists for 20 million people, he said. Canadian institutions say they do not have the money to help students from poor countries and Canadian aid agencies have been deaf to requests for financial support. They do not have Ghana on their agenda, Dr. Asante said.

"I think Canada could do more, much more to assist Ghana and other African countries," Dr. Asante said.

Dr. Asante, currently a professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, was among the first in Canada to link disabilities in children and mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy. He identified FAS in the 1970s at a time when the cause of the disabilities in the children was unexplained. In recent years, he has been part of a team in the Vancouver region at the forefront of FAS diagnosis in North America.

The oldest of eight children, Dr. Asante was born into a family of teachers who lived in southern Ghana, a former British colony previously know as the Gold Coast. His maternal grandfather was a Methodist missionary; his paternal grandfather was a Presbyterian missionary.

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Dr. Asante began helping others at an extremely young age. He recalled reading the Bible to his grandfather before he was old enough to go to school. "As a boy, I was his seeing-eye dog," Dr. Asante said.

He was sent to a Presbyterian boarding school at the age of 12. The family could not afford to send him to high school but he won scholarships to pay his way. "There were always books around," he said. "We were very privileged." He grew up speaking three Ghanaian languages and English, which at the time was an official language of the country.

He decided to become a doctor while in secondary school, aiming to emulate a friend of his father's who was a doctor. He had hoped to train in Britain, but was accepted at UBC for an undergraduate degree in science, so he headed to Canada. He went to Scotland for his medical training and returned afterward to Vancouver.

He always intended to return to Ghana after completing his education. He specialized in pediatrics because he thought it would be useful in Ghana. But the country remained unstable for many years after its independence in 1957. He kept putting off his return.

He completed his medical residency with huge debts. He thought he would work in northern B.C. for a few years to pay off his bills before returning to Ghana. He stayed in Terrace for 20 years. "I started my own practice and found out I was needed there," he said.

His first encounter with FAS was in 1973 while in Yukon. He began reading up on international research and paying closer attention to children with similar problems. At the time, it was thought of as a northern and native problem. "We discovered it could be a problem for anyone who used alcohol," he said. He thought it was preventable and would disappear once people understand the issue. "I did not realize it would turn out to be my lifetime work," he said.

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Dr. Asante moved to the Vancouver region in 1990 and in 1999, he became involved with the first free-standing centre for diagnosis and management of FAS. Looking back on his career, he thought about how he was a citizen of the world.

"Things that are happening in Canada are happening in other parts of world too," he said. "The needs of children are the same, in Canada and in Africa, and we should all contribute to help children, wherever we are."

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