Geert Vanneste: With Child-Help in the Champions League of development cooperation
“Imagine being wet all the time because urine is constantly leaking out of your bladder. And with that, you are sitting where you are right now. Or you work in a hotel and clients ask you where the bad smell is coming from while you are afraid of being fired. Or the teacher at school sends you home because the children won't stop laughing at you.” Anyone speaking to Geert Vanneste will quickly understand why Oxybutynin is so important for people with spina bifida.
Oxybutynin is a drug that relaxes the muscles. Patients with spina bifida only use it locally in the bladder. Many of them cannot control or relax their bladder; only using this drug it is possible to completely empty it during catheterization. If urine remains in the bladder, serious infections can develop, including kidney failure.
Although the drug is so important, it is not marketed in Africa. Even more: the supply of Oxybutynin is prohibited by current laws. Geert Vanneste wants to change that. On behalf of Child-Help, he works tirelessly to ensure that Oxybutynin is available to as many people as possible in Africa.
To make clear the importance of Oxybutynin
“So it is important to get this message across to the heads of health ministries and national drug agencies in the nine African countries in which Child-Help has partners”, says Vanneste. "What helps is that we have lists of names and locations of needy patients." That speaks for itself and touches the hearts of the employees in the ministries and authorities.
This process is not always easy. Geert Vanneste has been working in the community rehabilitation program and as a hospital manager in Africa for 20 years; he has advised African health programs for twelve years. Then he came to Child-Help. "All of that was difficult, but Child-Help's mandate is the most difficult there is in the health sector, it is the Champions League of development cooperation."
He is not impressed by prejudices in his work: "Some people say that all officials in Africa are corrupt, they just want money," says Geert Vanneste. “Well, it depends who is talking to you. If I were someone who only talked about money, yes, maybe some of them would be corrupt. But I tell them about children. About the man in the hotel. About the mother, who has to empty her child's bladder five times a day, otherwise, he can die. And that she needs this product so that her child can survive. "
He is always friendly and is not afraid, to tell the truth. “I don't lie to anyone, I don't play games. When they asked about a drink, about transportation charges, or directly about money, I kindly reply that these children are their children, not mine. That I work hard to help them for free and that I expect them to do the same. Then they laugh, but they trust me. People who trust each other can achieve something together."
Personal communication with decision-makers
WhatsApp is a helpful tool to get in touch with decision-makers. As soon as he has the cell phone number of a health minister or the head of the respective national drug agency, he creates contact and sends a friendly message. "If the communication is then direct, I generally trust that there will be progress soon", says Vanneste.
Geert Vanneste works hard to achieve this. There are times when other appointments are pressing and it is difficult to answer all e-mails about Oxybutynin. He works with a very strict daily schedule system, which helps him. “Then it is, for example, “Nigeria”-day. That means, whatever else comes up, I'll take a look at the current status and write a few e-mails or WhatsApp messages to Nigeria. "
"The work feels good."
What motivates him to do this strenuous work? “It's the result that motivates me the most, and the fact that I feel good about it”, says Vanneste. And he also gives personal reasons: “When our daughter developed cancer, I brought flowers to the doctor and the nurses who treated her. It might sound silly, but I had to give them these flowers. To say thank you and for me. It feels good. I knew they would be happy and enjoy this day a little more. It is perhaps a way of saying that we are all human, on the same rocky road."
His hard work pays off, he mentions for example the first legally manufactured capsules of Oxybutynin in Uganda and the first export from there to other African countries. Several hundred patients in Uganda, Malawi and Kenya are currently benefiting from Vanneste's work. "In the future, and, hopefully, in the long run, several thousand people in the nine East African countries in which Child-Help is currently active", hopes Geert Vanneste. “If we had the resources, it would be around 100,000 in other African countries as well. But we don't yet have any partners who can train the parents. Ultimately, it all depends on our budget. As soon as we are successful in the nine countries, we will find out what comes next. "
But the real highlight for him would be that nobody with spina bifida can no longer go to school or work because there is no Oxybutynin available or the catheters are too expensive. "We will continue to make progress towards this goal", says Geert Vanneste with assurance.
"Everyone we can help makes a big difference."
His next short-term goal is to use the channels created by the distribution of Oxybutynin for other urgently needed medical supplies, such as shunts (a tube that lowers the pressure in the head) and catheters that are used to drain urine and used for the use of Oxybutynin. "We want to guarantee a stable supply and make the entire process more cost-effective so that we can serve more people", says Vanneste, explaining the plan.
In the long term, he hopes that more and more money will be available from the African countries themselves – through increased local taxes and, for a while, from payments from rich countries. “In this way, we can continue our mission and increase the number of people who get our help and thus fair opportunities in life. We all have only one life, it's the only chance we have. Everyone we can help makes a big difference.
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