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Having a worldwide reputation as Pakistan’s most famous surgeon doing fistula repair surgery, Dr Shershah Syed comes from a family of doctors. All his siblings, their spouses and children belong to the healing profession. It was the dream of his father, Syed Abu Zafar, who was a school teacher; who made it come true with the help of his wife, Dr Atia Zafar, and the children.

Obstetrics-gynaecology professor Dr Shershah Syed has inspired and motivated countless doctors, midwives and nurses to do their life-saving work. Still charged with the energy that he possessed as a firebrand activist when he was a student at the Dow Medical College, he is always seen busy — working, discussing his plans, implementing them, and hopping cities.

In this interview, Dr Syed tells Dawn about his work at the Abu Zafar Institute of Medical Sciences (AZIMS), which is located at Koohi Goth in Bin Qasim Town.

Q. What is the situation of maternal health in Pakistan, and how can it be improved?

A. Pakistan ails with a high fertility rate and a high maternal mortality rate. An estimated 30,000 women die each year due to complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. It is one woman dying every 20 minutes. A very high majority of these deaths occur in rural areas and urban slums. Improving maternal health and reducing maternal mortality remains at the centre of global health initiatives.

According to estimates, about half a million women died of maternal causes last year globally. About 99 per cent of the fatality took place in countries like Pakistan, a signatory to the Millennium Development Goal 5 targets, which are about maternal health.

Q. How does the institute for training nursing tutors relate to this need?

A. The situation indicates an urgent need of health care workers trained in maternal and newborn health care with which comes the responsibility of training them through well-trained tutors. It is with this aim in mind that the institute for training nursing tutors was established at the end of 2008. The institute addresses one of the major concerns of health care in the country: shortage of qualified nursing instructors and poor quality of maternal and childcare services.

The training institute is run in collaboration with the Pakistan National Forum on Women’s Health (PNF) and the Pakistan Nursing Council (PNC). It aims at improving the quality of nursing education through training to develop teaching capabilities of the nursing faculty across Pakistan.

Q. Who made this institute come up?

A. The land belonged to our family, which is dedicated to health, its training and education. Our friends, supporters and well-wishers pitched in with money and material to support the project. They are so many that it is not possible to mention them all here. I would like to mention GlaxoSmithKline though which donated £250,000, and provided funding and support to run the project for three years. More funding will be needed over the next few years and I am sure there is no dearth of people and institutions that will come forward to support the project.

Q. How does its training programme work?

A. The institute is well-equipped to provide practical training. It has conference and lecture halls, laboratories, a swimming pool, and a student hostel. Students are given a monthly stipend to cover their expenses, and as an incentive to complete the programme.

The training programme admits 60 students each year from all over Pakistan. There is a six-month training course covering health issues such as maternal and childcare, sexually-transmitted diseases, infection control, genetics and population control. Building on the train-the-trainer concept, nursing faculty members are recruited for further skill development through the programme. The graduates are qualified to impart quality healthcare training to the nursing staff in their respective hospitals.

The institute was inaugurated on November 18, 2008. The first batch of nursing and midwifery tutor training programme passed out in March 2009. The fourth batch will complete training on February 15 this year. The course is offered absolutely free of cost and nothing is to be paid for, in any form, by the trainees. Instead they are paid a reasonable stipend during the training period.

Dr Syed does surgeries at the institute every Sunday, giving women their life and dignity back. He carries them out free under the “End fistula campaign” of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The attached hospital serves mostly Balochi and Sindhi population in the vicinity. Most of the doctors, some of them from abroad, work here voluntarily.