Dr Rasha Kelej: Breaking the stigma around infertility

BY: Efia Akese
Dr Kelej with some women in Gabon
Dr Kelej with some women in Gabon

Infertility is a major reproductive health problem worldwide, however in Africa and other developing and under developed areas, the prevalence rate is high due to a number of factors.

Unsafe abortion, unsafe delivery, untreated infectious diseases resulting from child marriage, genital mutilation and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are the most common causes of infertility in these areas.
Although research indicates that 50 per cent of infertility cases are due to male infertility, women in many cultures are stigmatised for their inability to bear children.
As a result, most infertile women living in such settings assume their lives are meaningless without children and will do anything (irrespective of the health hazards) to have children of their own.
Dr  Kelej in a discussion with  Prof. Dr. Frank Stangenberg Haverkamp, Chairman of the Executive Board of E. Merck KG and the Chairman of Merck Foundation Board of Trustees  and the First Lady of Niger, Mrs. Aissata Issoufou Mahamadou.
In 2015, Merck Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Merck KGaA, a pharmaceutical company in Germany, launched the “Merck More Than a Mother"campaign to empower infertile women through access to information, education and health and by changing mindsets.
Spearheaded by Dr Rasha Kelej, CEO of the Foundation, the campaign which is currently in 35 countries across Africa and Asia also defines interventions to break the stigma around infertile women and raise awareness of infertility prevention and management.
Born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, Dr Kelej understands the stigma and social pressure infertile women in Africa go through.
Also, through her work, she has visited many villages across Africa where she has held hearing sessions with many women tagged as ‘barren’ and who suffer violence either from their husbands or the societies they live in.
“I have had a feel of the frustration infertile women, especially those in the remotest parts of Africa, go through.
Last year, the P­resident of Senegal, Mr  Macky Sall, (middle) and his wife , Mrs Marieme Faye Sall, (right) First Lady of Senegal presided over  the 5th edition of the Merck Africa Asia Luminary.
I have been part of the treatment processes of some of these women and I am encouraged to work hard to alleviate their plights,” she said.
The campaign also supports governments in defining policies to enhance access to regulated, safe and effective fertility care.
According to Dr Kelej, the foundation partnered with First Ladies who were the ambassadors in their respective countries, academia, ministries of health and international fertility societies.
“The initiative also provides medical education and training for fertility specialists and embryologists to enable them to help and treat infertile couples in their countries.
“Also, part of the campaign is our Merck Embryology & Fertility Training Programme, a three-month hands-on practical course to establish the platform of fertility specialists across Africa and Asia. We provide clinical and practical training for fertility specialists and embryologists in more than 35 countries across Africa and Asia.”
The countries include Chad, Niger, Central African Republic, Cote D’I voire, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia.
Others are Nigeria, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea Conakry, Sierra Leon, Liberia, Cameroun, Rwanda, Botswana, DR Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Gambia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia.
The First Lady, Mrs Rebecca Akufo –Addo will be the ambassador for the “ Merck More Than a Mother” project in Ghana.
Visit ahead of 2019 Merck Africa Asia Luminary
Dr Kelej will arrive in Ghana on Sunday, January 13 ahead of a preliminary meeting with Mrs Rebecca Akufo-Addo, First Lady of Ghana on Monday, January 14.
In collaboration with the Office of the First Lady, the Rebecca Foundation, the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders, the meeting is to prepare for the 6th edition of the Merck Africa Asia Luminary scheduled to take place in Accra later this year.
During her three-day visit to Ghana, she will also launch the “Merck More Than a Mother” project in partnership with the Ghana Fertility Society , and officially outdoor the First Lady as the ambassador for the project in Ghana .
“At the 5th edition of the Merck Africa Asia Luminary held in Senegal, the First Ladies accepted gracefully to become ambassadors of “Merck More Than a Mother” campaign and the long-term partnership with Merck Foundation with the aim of building the healthcare capacity in their countries and to empower infertile women and break the stigma around infertility.
“It took me a lot of efforts and time to bring all of them on board and after the successful conference, I started executing the programmes in each country with the support of each First Lady and the ministry of health and for the countries that we have started already, we will follow up and expand to improve access to equitable healthcare solution.” Dr Kelej explained.
The foundation will also partner the Ghana Journalists Association to announce a health media training programme and call for applications for a media awards sponsored by the foundation.
Training opportunities available for doctors in fertility and oncology will also be made public during the period.
Focus on health and well-being
Dr Kelej explained that the foundation’s aim was to improve the health and well-being of people through science and technology.
“Our efforts are primarily focused on raising awareness of non communicable diseases, empowering women and the youth, improving access to innovative healthcare solutions in under-served communities, building healthcare and scientific research capacity in the fields of diabetes, hypertension, cancer and fertility care in underserved communities.
“There are many challenges in Africa with regards to health care and since this is our speciality, we can help.
“We also focus on Asia, we have programmes in many countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Cambodia; and we will expand to Latin America in 2020.”
She mentioned the Merck Oncology Fellowship Programme which was launched in 2016 to build professional cancer care capacity and to increase the limited number of oncologists in Africa and developing countries.
So far, over 43 candidates from more than 21 African countries have been rolled onto the fellowship.
“We specially reach out to countries that do not have even a single oncologist such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia or have only very few such as Chad, Niger and Central African Republic and Guinea. It is our vision to create a strong platform of African specialists in these countries.”
“I think the future will be brighter if we cooperate together.
The magnitude of the health challenges are very big to be addressed by one organisation.
The secret is in the private public partnership and to really get things done by being hands on,” she pointed out.
Dr Kelej said the foundation also collaborated with the media, a critical partner and also depended on the expertise of the creative arts industry to raise awareness of the issues they handled.
Personal life
Born in February 1972 to Naema Nemrawy and Wasim Kelej in Alexandria, Egypt, Dr Kelej told The Mirror that she was a simple girl who always dreamt of impacting the world with her knowledge.
She holds a degree in Pharmacy from Alexandria University, Egypt and an MBA in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) integration with Business Strategy from Robert Gordon University, Scotland.
Dr Kelej joined Merck in 1996 and served in different capacities before becoming the CEO of the foundation.
Some positions she has held include Chief Social Officer, Head of the Global Social Responsibility & Market Development and Vice-President of Merck Healthcare.
“I had this dream but I did not know that I would realise it and have this promising career by being myself and doing what I love to do,” she noted.