A Mongolian odyseey

May 19, 2006, volume 36 number 5
By Diane Luckow

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Craig Janes will be eating a lot of freshly butchered and boiled sheep parts this summer as he spends 10 weeks travelling and tenting on an 8,000-kilometre journey through central and western Mongolia.

A professor in SFU's new faculty of health sciences, Janes is embarking on a second round of data collection for his research into the impact of Mongolia's economic transition on rural livelihoods and health.

“Research there is very compelling,” says Janes, who joined SFU in 2005 from the University of Colorado, where he spent the last 10 years doing research and working on academic exchange projects in Mongolia. “Mongolia was a Soviet satellite until 1990 and has been transitioning to a market economy over the last decade and a half. It's a perfect laboratory to examine how economic change affects the lives of people.”

His previous project conducted in 2002 revealed that despite a free, public health system, the very poor did not have good access to health services because the system wasn't sufficiently supplied with drugs, diagnostic equipment or other resources. He subsequently worked with colleagues at the school of public health in the Health Sciences University of Mongolia, the ministry of health and the World Health Organization to introduce policy changes enabling primary care doctors to share diagnostic labs and resources and to improve their access to drug supplies.

Janes' current project will look at the economic transition's impact on herders, who sell their animal products to earn a living.

“Things have changed considerably in the past 15 years, especially the exposure of herders to economic and environmental risk,” observes Janes. “I'm interested to see how that's affecting the well-being of the household - things like children's nutrition, reproductive health, self-reported health status, blood pressure, and symptoms of cardiovascular disease.”

To carry out his research, Janes will be accompanied by graduate student Lesley Johnston, one of 16 students in SFU's new master's in population and public health program. The research trip will serve as her required internship for the program. She'll be interviewing and doing clinical exams, such as testing for anemia. She'll also be conducting her own research into whether the herders' nomadic lifestyle has an impact on household well-being.

Over the summer, the research duo will be hugely reliant on their vehicle's cigarette lighter, which will supply battery power to laptop computers and medical diagnostic instruments. With no internet service, they'll also be more isolated than usual. Still, says Janes, “Mongolia is a wonderful place to work. It's a sparsely settled country and any visitors are prized.”

Janes is hopeful that his ongoing research will make a difference in the lives of Mongolians. “We're trying to move from research to the implementation of programs that improve public health or rural livelihood. I'm working with Mongolian graduate students and some folks in Canada to look at ways of enhancing the communications infrastructure in the countryside to facilitate health response, especially for maternity cases.”

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