By Joseph Tucker, MD, MA
[This month's column is a guest column by Joseph Tucker, assistant professor of medicine, infectious diseases at the UNC School of Medicine and director of UNC Project-China]
The first Tar Heel to undertake collaborative sexually transmitted infections control work in China was Dr. George Hatem, back in 1933. After learning Mandarin Chinese and immersing himself in the local culture, he ascended within the public health leadership and played a key role in national STI control efforts there. In 1986, he was awarded a Lasker Prize for his contribution.
The UNC tradition of collaborative partnerships of this type has been re-ignited through the efforts of Myron Cohen (who usually writes this column) and Gail Henderson, chair of the department of social medicine. Cohen and Henderson, who are married, first went to China in 1979, and over the past three decades have led a number of training and research projects in the Middle Kingdom.
And now, 79 years after Hatem’s first trip to China, UNC is extending its legacy of STI research and training through the launch of UNC Project-China, an initiative that will focus on developing close ties with Chinese counterparts to spur collaboration. To help further this initiative, a dozen UNC faculty members and several trainees traveled to Guangzhou, China in May 2012 to take part in the first UNC-South China STI Research Training Conference. Supported by Chinese counterparts and a grant from the National Institutes of Health, this training workshop focused on building local capacity among early career Chinese STI researchers. Two of the trainees wrote about the conference on GH Notes, the blog of the Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases.
Although UNC has links with STI leadership and researchers across China, we have focused our efforts in South China for several reasons. First, South China has a disproportionate burden of syphilis and other STIs. Second, the region has demonstrated a high level of commitment to STI control efforts and has long been known within China for its public health leadership and capacity to initiate innovative programs. Third, South China is strategically critical in broader US-China relations, creating the potential for health diplomacy. Finally, Guangzhou in South China was the site of the first Western hospital in China and has a long history of US-China collaborative medical projects.
Although the more recent collaboration is far removed in time from Dr. Hatem’s seminal work, there are some striking common themes. Dr. Hatem quickly became wedged into contemporary Chinese culture and was fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Our UNC Fogarty training site in China has been one of the few around the world that not only requires language proficiency, but encourages students to take formal Mandarin instruction as part of the year-long program. UNC trainees are paired with a local research twin in order to build bridges and enhance research capacity.
As UNC expands its STI research and training programs in China, I can only hope that George Hatem would be proud.
Dr. Cohen writes a regular “Global Health Update” column for the UNC Global Newsletter. We reprint the item here.