The recent graduation of 56 medical doctors from Orotta School of Medicine, located in Eritrea,[i] represents a proud individual and national achievement and a platform for future developmental progress. In Eritrea – a young, poor, developing country – the freshly minted doctors will play a vital role in improving health services, outreach, and accessibility, ultimately positively influencing national health outcomes and development.
Health is a vital feature of international development, and the topic has also long been a central human rights issue. Three of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals (UN MDGs) relate directly to health (Goals 4-6),[ii] while the right to health is enshrined in various international human rights instruments and regional documents.[iii] Although the centrality of health to human rights and development is generally globally acknowledged,[iv] many countries, particularly within Africa or the developing world, continue to struggle with or blatantly neglect health provision, services, or implementation, thus condemning millions to suffer.
In Eritrea, health has remained an integral component of the country’s various development endeavors, and is viewed as one of the state’s primary commitments to citizens. Orotta, the scene of the recent graduation, holds a legendary, almost mythical aura for Eritreans. Its status dates back to the independence war (from 1961-1991) when it was the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s (EPLF) central hospital (located in Barka) and distinguished as the “longest hospital in the world.”[v] Integrated within the EPLF’s underground maze of trenches and tunnels,[vi] the Orotta hospital was the scene of thousands of operations performed by EPLF surgeons. As well, it manufactured an extensive array of medicines, ointments, tablets, and capsules – helping provide for a large part of the population’s needs.[vii]
After the war and various challenges during Eritrea’s initial independence phase, Orotta arose from the proverbial ashes. In February of 2004, Orotta School of Medicine opened its doors, enrolling 32 students.[viii] Subsequently, through efforts of the Eritrean diaspora, and a partnership between Eritrea’s Ministry of Health, George Washington University Medical Center, and Physicians for Peace, Orotta Postgraduate Medical School was opened in 2007.[ix]
Since then, Eritrea’s health system and infrastructure have expanded incrementally, ever-improving and promoting rights of access to health.[x] In 2012, a total of 5022 professional medical staff were employed across 340 health facilities (excluding military facilities).[xi] As well, recent associate nursing programs in the cities of Barentu, Ginda and Mendefera have trained 1,800 nurses, 2,700 associate nurses and 905 technicians.[xii] Last, since 2007, Orotta Medical School has trained 15 pediatricians, 5 gynecologists, and 5 surgeons, with 311 medical and 80 dental students enrolled in 2012.[xiii]
Overall, these developments have supported Eritrea’s MDG efforts, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently noted that “Eritrea has made impressive progress in recent years, meeting the health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on reducing child mortality, maternal health and the fight against malaria, and HIV and AIDS.”[xiv]
That said, Eritrea still faces significant health and development challenges; for example, its physicians-to-people ratio remains quite small. Moving forward however, Orotta – and its noble graduates – will hopefully carry on playing a significant role in Eritrea’s sustainable development framework and ensure the country continues to yield tangible, positive health results and outcomes.
[vii] Pateman, R. 1990. Eritrea: Even the Stones are Burning. Asmara, Eritrea: Red Sea Press, Inc.
[xi] WHO Regional Office for Africa. 2010. Eritrea: Factsheets of Health Statistics. 2010.