Public Health, Pesticides and Poverty in Senegal with Dr. Mountaga Dia

by Victoria Pilbeam, Australia, ELP 2014
Written on July 15, 2014.

Image iconpilbeam-1_2.png a Senegalese farmer sprays pesticides without wearing any protective clothing

At over 6 feet tall stands a participant whom many of the ELP participants refer to affectionately as "Docteur," Dr. Mountaga Dia a trained doctor and public health specialist from the West African country of Senegal. I recently sat down with Dr. Dia and in a mixture of English and French we discussed his work, his background, his interest in taking part in the ELP and how he sees the connections between health and the environment.

When describing how he came to work in Public Health, Dr. Dia is pragmatic and contextualizes his own career path within the relative poverty of Senegal. As the fifth of ten children, in a family of modest means, Dr. Dia states matter of factly, "I knew that I was going to have to work to support myself and my family," and it was this desire for financial security which initially motivated him to study medicine. However, it was the 1994 arrival of International Monetary Fund and World Bank Structural Adjustments Program in Senegal that pushed Dr. Dia to focus on improving Public Health in disadvantaged rural communities.

This program, by devaluing local currencies, led to a sharp increase in the prices of import goods like medicine and milk, which are crucial to health outcomes. As a medical student having then completed his thesis working with rural Senegalese community health centers on low birth weight, Dr. Dia was well placed to foresee the consequences of this policy, and 20 years later he still becomes visibly aggravated as we discuss its imposition. It was in response to this that Dr. Dia joined SIGGI (a word which literally translates to "rectification") in 1994, an initiative supported by Enda Tiers Monde and Terre des Homme which sought to build capacity among largely untrained rural community health workers in Senegal. Dr. Dia described the yearlong process, "We met in a local primary school every Wednesday and there we would train them how to [give] basic medicines like paracetamol, aspirin, betadine and eventually injectibles. Then we would also provide supervision".

Image iconpilbeam-21_2.png Dr. Dia engaging in community health work in Senegal on behalf of Enda Tiers monde

It was this strong background in community health mobilization that led him to his current work in pesticides. In particular, Dr. Dia cites one 2002 Senegalese study as being catalytic, “Enda [Tiers Monde], with GEF [Global Environment Facility] and FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization], did a small study with toxicologists on the level of pesticides in local market foods and they found results that were way out there, so much so that they were too afraid to publish. After that, they realized there was a serious problem and Enda asked me to work on it". From there, Dr. Dia helped run a series of studies on how people use pesticides in Senegal, "we asked: how do you use pesticides? How do you measure them out? Because many people just use old Nescafe tins or water bottles. When do you use them? Do you wear protective clothes? Do your wife and children help?" From this platform, Dr. Dia was able to help shape a regional plan for pesticides management that includes prevention, water monitoring and creating a network of communities along the Senegal River. However, due to the lack of funds, implementation has stalled. Dr. Dia remains hopeful about this project however, and now through his position at the University of Bambey, he is trying to create networks to support this project and has had increasing international interest.

This interest in creating networks for sustainable change is largely what drew him to ELP. Dr. Dia posits, “We are here to build a network and especially in my area, environment and health, there has not been enough of this.” Given this, Dr. Dia questions the logic of some academics who choose to address health or environment to the exclusion of the other. “These days, having an interest in environment is the obligatory pathway if you want to work in health. As we do studies, we find that more and more, there are clear links between the environment and health.” Keenly interested in getting as much knowledge out of every session, Dr. Dia is often spotted filming key ELP sessions on his phone.