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Boston College Undergraduate Aims to Help Rural African Communities Deal with Dangerous Diseases

Boston College undergraduate aims to help rural African communities deal with dangerous diseases

03/27/14
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There needs to be a way to empower people to recognize the illnesses that can harm them,” says Loic Assobmo ’15, shown with doctors Kristou Metchum and Bouting Mayaka at the Dschang District Hospital in central Cameroon. (Photo courtesy Loic Assobmo)

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: Mar. 27, 2014

For Loic Assobmo ’15, launching an initiative to provide public health information to rural Africans isn’t simply about social entrepreneurship. For him, it’s personal.

The biology major spent spring break in his native Cameroon, meeting with doctors and businesses to discuss his idea of using smart phones to deliver public health information to residents and villages without access to doctors and often hundreds of miles from the nearest hospital.

“There needs to be a way to empower people to recognize the illnesses that can harm them,” said Assobmo, “and to provide them with resources to understand an illness and to take care of themselves, or family or friends.”

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Loic Assobmo ’15 in his native Cameroon during spring break, where he met with doctors and businesses to discuss his idea of using smart phones to deliver public health information. (Photo courtesy Loic Assobmo)

He knows the toll the onset of a debilitating illness can take and how delays in treatment can compound the obstacles patients face trying to get well.

His spring visit, funded with the help of a Legacy Grant from BC, was Assobmo’s first to the country in west-central Africa since he was six, when he left Cameroon with his family in the months after his mother suffered a stroke and struggled to get the diagnosis and care she needed. The family relocated to America, joining Assobmo’s father, finding medical treatment for his mother and settling in Brockton.

That experience and the frustration he felt have always haunted Assobmo.

“I’ve always been bothered by the fact that we had to move across the world to get adequate health care for my mother,” he said. “It seems unbelievable that something like that should happen.”

Now the pre-med student and aspiring physician has a plan to use smart phones to give Africans access to public health information that can help them spot and seek treatment for five major illnesses: stroke, HIV, malaria, pneumonia and Ebola virus.

He spent last summer at Think Big, Dream Big, a social entrepreneurship incubator and mentoring program, where he marshaled online resources, constructed a prototype app and started to develop a plan to take his idea back to his homeland. He calls the initiative the Global Enterprise for Medical Awareness (GEMA), which he has registered as a non-profit group in Massachusetts.

His recent visit to Cameroon reunited Assobmo with his maternal grandfather, who dutifully drove him to appointments with doctors, public health advocates, mobile phone service providers and government officials.

During the week he was in Cameroon, he also taped interviews for a television news report on his efforts and helped to script and produce three video public service announcements on public health issues.

He received a positive response from physicians he met with at hospitals in the capital of Yaoundé and the Gulf of Guinea port city of Douala, Cameroon’s commercial center.

“The first thing they said is they are glad someone is doing something about these issues,” Assobmo said. “They’re excited to see it. They think it can be successful because of the education component. They want the average person to be able to identify illnesses that happen so frequently and right now many people cannot do that.”

Assobmo said he’s meeting with faculty and fellow students who share interests in the issue and hopes to eventually establish a federally non-profit status and raise funds in order to develop the mobile app. He said the doctors he met with cited needs for a countrywide referral system and surplus medical technology, so those issues may be added to the GEMA agenda.

He hopes to return to Cameroon next winter or spring and test the mobile app. He will travel to Africa again in May with Carroll School of Management Associate Professor of Information Systems John Gallaugher on TechTrek Ghana.

For all he accomplished during his trip, Assobmo was most grateful to reconnect with members of his family who are still in Cameroon.

“It was a lot of work, but I had a lot of fun,” Assobmo said. “My whole trip was with my grandfather, who drove me everywhere. The whole experience of being with my grandfather, building that relationship, was so special.”