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“Merck More than a Mother” high level panel calls for action to improve access to regulated fertility care and empowering infertile women in Africa

  •  “Empowering Berna” Project to support infertile women in Africa
  • Supporting governments in defining policies to regulate fertility care in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria
  • Providing comprehensive training for African embryologists
 
“Merck More than a Mother’s” efforts received big support in Finland from a high level panel of ministers, parliamentarians, academia, International Federation of Fertility Societies (IFFS), African Fertility Society and global fertility experts who called for action to improve access to regulated fertility care and empower infertile women in Africa through access to information, health and change of mindset. 

Click here to watch this video for a summary of the high level panel to improve access to regulated fertility care and empowering infertile women in Africa

During the event that was held in Finland, a productive dialogue started to address the different angles of “Merck More than a Mother” initiative by the high level panel.

The panel included, Dr. Belen Garijo, Member of Executive Board and CEO of Merck Healthcare; H.E. Sarah Opendi, the Minister of Health, Uganda; H.E. Betty Amongi, the Minister of Lands, Housing and Urban Development and Chair of Uganda Women Parliamentary Association; Hon. Senator Dr Lanre Tejuoso, Chairman of Senate Committee on Health, Nigeria; Hon. Joyce Lay, Member of Parliament, Kenya; Prof. Joe Simpson, President of IFFS; Prof. Oladapo Ashiru, President of Africa Fertility Society-Nigeria, Dr. James Olobo-Lalobo, Vice President of Africa Fertility Society-Uganda; Dr. Ivans Sini, Director of Indonesian Reproductive Sciences Institute (IRSI); Dr. Karim Bendhaou, President of North and West Africa, Merck Healthcare and Dr. Rasha Kelej, Chief Social Officer, Merck Healthcare.

Group discussion before the start of the panel


All the panel members agreed that “Merck More than a Mother” addressed successfully most if not all the angles relevant to infertility in Africa, such as  creating a culture shift to respect and appreciate infertile women in Africa; raising awareness about infertility prevention and management and male infertility by integrating it into healthcare infrastructure such as HIV, maternal health and mother and child programs; education and training for African embryologists since lack of trained and skilled staff is a big challenge; defining ART policies to improve access to regulated fertility care; building advocacy and open dialogue with governments, policy makers, parliaments, healthcare providers and media; and empowering infertile women through access to awareness, health and change of mindset and empowering women who can no longer get pregnant by starting a small business for them to build their independent and happier lives through “Empowering Berna“ project.

Dr. Belen Garijo (centre), Member of Executive Board and CEO of Merck Healthcare with   Hon. Senator Dr. Lanre Tejuoso (left), Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Federal Republic of Nigeria; H.E. Betty Amongi, Minister of Lands, Housing and Urban Development and Chair of Uganda Women Parliamentarian Association; H.E. Sarah Opendi, Minister of State for Health, Uganda; and Hon. Joyce Lay, Member of Parliament, Kenya

Dr. Belen Garijo, Member of Executive Board and CEO of Merck Healthcare emphasized: “Countless women in Africa face fear, abuse and discrimination every day simply because they are infertile. Providing access to infertility care is important, but it is even more important to intervene to decrease stigmatization and social suffering arising from this condition.” 

“Most women in the rural areas don’t know that the problem of infertility can actually be managed for many of them. Since we launched “Merck More than a Mother” in Uganda we have been trying as a country to integrate fertility care services and awareness about prevention, management and male infertility into the already existing reproductive healthcare services which will be cost effective as the infrastructure is already there,” said H.E. Sarah Opendi, the Minister of Health, Uganda.
 

H.E Betty Amongi (centre), Minister of Lands, Housing and Urban Development and Chair of Uganda Women Parliamentarian Association with Hon. Senator Dr. Lanre Tejuoso (left), Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Federal Republic of Nigeria; and  Dr. Belen Garijo, Member of Executive Board and CEO of Merck Healthcare

“In Africa, the issue of infertility is embedded in culture and also the wealth of most African countries is embedded in land and property. Therefore, culturally a girl child or a woman inherits from where she is married and when you don’t give birth you are supposed to go back to your home and when you do, you cannot inherit any property or land because your brothers and their children are the ones entitled to it,” explained H.E. Betty Amongi, Minister of Lands, Housing and Urban Development and Chair of Uganda Women Parliamentarian Association.



“This leads to economic exclusion for infertile women. In Uganda, we are working on enforcing the law where women will equally inherit from their blood family so that they become independent and have the power of choice over their lives which will also help empowering infertile women in Uganda,” Hon. Amongi added. 



“In Nigeria, when there is infertility men believe that the woman is the problem. As a parliamentarian I will make sure that the “Merck More than a Mother” initiative will go everywhere including churches and mosques where people go for prayer when there is infertility so that the religious leaders can tell people to go for screening to determine if there is a medical problem first,” emphasized Hon. Senator Dr. Lanre Tejuoso, Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Federal Republic of Nigeria.



“We are looking forward to welcoming Merck in Nigeria to launch the “Merck More than a Mother” later in the year and I am happy to be the initiative’s only man ambassador. I will also introduce the ART bill in parliament so that we also join Kenya in having regulation in place,” he added.



The event also marked the kick-off of the “Empowering Berna” Project and the Merck Africa Embryologists Training Program.



Among the infertile women who have benefited from the “Empowering Berna” Project include:


Grace Kambini from Kibera, Kenya:

She is now able to stand on her own feet after “Merck More than a Mother” helped her build a small local kitchen and cafeteria from where she cooks and sells food. 

“My suffering and stressful life is over now I am a new person. I can now walk with my head up knowing that I have a great business that will sustain me. I am very happy with this program and I wish that Merck can continue helping many other desperate people in this world,” says Grace. 

 
Watch the story of empowering Grace here. 


Noonkipa Mpalush also from Kenya:


She has been provided with two cows to enable her become a productive member of society. Each of the cows is able to produce six liters of milk per day. From this she is able to earn about USD 6 from the sale of the milk every day.


“But now my life has changed with the help of Merck, I am happy and proud because I can support myself. Now I am more than a mother”, says Noonkipa with a beaming smile."


Watch the story of empowering Noonkipa here.


Berna Amullen from Uganda:


She is now more independent and happier after “Merck More than a Mother” helped her establish a poultry project that now enables her to have a steady income to support herself. She has also been provided with the training needed to run and sustain her chicken business.



“I am so delighted, I used to be useless and laughed at in this community. Nobody cared about me when I was sick. I am now happy, I am strong. I have strength all over my body,” Berna says while dancing with her neighbors.

Watch the story of empowering Berna here.

Chinelo Azodo from Nigeria:

She has been empowered to start a restaurant where she can be able to earn about US$ 120 per month. Previously, Chinelo who is not only childless but also a widow was earning less than US$30 per month from providing tailoring services.

Chinelo says: “Before this I used to walk around stitching peoples’ torn clothes with my sewing machine. But now with the restaurant I can now take good care of myself. People say my food is delicious, I have earned their respect because of Merck, and they no longer insult me. I can now earn a better living and also save money towards adopting a child. I am a very happy woman I dance all the time.”

Watch the story of empowering Chinelo here.

“It is very important to empower infertile women through improving access to awareness and fertility care so they can bear children as part of their human rights. In case they can no longer be treated, Empowering Berna project will contribute towards empowering and training them to establish their own small business so that they can be independent and re-build their own lives, a woman is more than a mother, Empowering Berna initiative will prove this every day,” Rasha Kelej, Chief Social Officer of Merck Healthcare emphasized.  


Prof. Joe Leigh Simpson (centre), President International Federation of Fertility Societies with Dr. Rasha Kelej (left), Chief Social Officer, Merck Healthcare and Prof. Oladapo Ashiru, President Africa Fertility Society

“At IFFS we don’t only look at the success rate but we also look at guidelines, regulations and what prevents the success of fertility therapy. We also have basic trainings which we have in developing parts of the world on what any physician or health provider can do to determine there is infertility. We will work with “Merck More than a Mother” on this,” Prof. Joe Leigh Simpson, President International Federation of Fertility Societies said.



“The “Merck More than a Mother” initiative will energize my team to speed up in finding solutions to train and employ community based officers to provide essential primary healthcare at the village level,” said Dr. Karim Bendhaou, President of North and West Africa, Merck Healthcare. 




Dr. Karim Bendhaou (centre), President, North and West Africa, Merck Healthcare; with Dr. James Olobo-Lalobo (extreme left), Vice President, Africa Fertility Society; Dr. Ivans Sini, Director, Indonesian Reproductive Sciences Institute; Hon. Senator Dr. Lanre Tejuoso, Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Federal Republic of Nigeria; and H.E. Betty Amongi, Minister of Lands, Housing and Urban Development and Chair of Uganda Women Parliamentarian Association

During the panel, the Merck Africa Embryologists Training Program was discussed. The aim of this comprehensive three months training program is to   improve access to quality and safe fertility care across the continent. The training of African embryologists through “Merck More than a Mother” has already started in Indonesia at the Indonesian Reproductive Science Institute (IRSI) with two participants: Emmanuel Okullo from Uganda and Pauline Kibui from Kenya.

“It has been very exciting being here for the training. It has answered most of the questions I had on embryology and also cemented my knowledge,” says Pauline Kibui.

“We are excited to take the knowledge we have acquired here back home to our countries,” sums up Emmanuel Okullo about the training.

Watch this video as Dr. Ivan Sini, Director of IRSI highlights the focus areas of the embryology training and as trainees Kibui and Okullo share their experience.


 
Until we see each other again, 



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9 Months Pregnant



Baby bump at 9 months pregnant

I am 39 weeks and 2 days pregnant today. It’s still hard to believe that I’m in the last week of pregnancy. With 6 days to go, I am having Braxton hicks/ false labor almost every day.

Tuesday and Wednesday gave me a scare and I was almost convinced that I was going into true labor. I was however hopeful that  the baby would sit tight for just one more day as I really wanted to attend my daughter’s parents day in school on Thursday. I’ve been dying to know how she is in school, and the thought of meeting and speaking with her teacher excited me more than anything else.

 ‘She’s a good girl, very hardworking and extremely confident,’ the teacher gushed. I expected to hear nothing less, but the confident part made me very happy. A woman can never be too confident. I’m just glad I’m raisin a girl with a healthy self esteem.

It’s been very cold lately and I’m starting to think that this is probably one of the worst times of the year to give birth. I cannot begin to imagine how terrible it would be to deliver in this cold, but the good thing is that by the time we are ready to be up and about, the sun will be back, the cedar swingsets will be out, and the pools will be ready for us.

I’m looking forward to labor, meeting and finding out the sex of my baby, and to doing away with all the pains and weight. This pregnancy has definitely taken a toll on my body and I cannot wait to pay it back with a little loving in form of  work-outs.

I’ll conclude the pregnancy posts with this image of the third trimester baby bumps.

Third trimester baby bumps

It’s my prayer that you’ve enjoyed the monthly pregnancy posts, and if pregnant, I hope I gave you companionship along the way. Thank you so much for your continued support and for always coming back for more.

Please pray for my family and I as we transition to the next chapter and as always, I’ll keep you updated.

Much love.

Until we see each other again, 


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“Merck More than a Mother” Supports Jackline Mwende - a Victim of Infertility Stigma in Kenya

  • Through “Empowering Berna” Project, Merck aims to empower infertile women economically and socially across Africa. 
  • Jackline Mwende was brutally slashed at her home in Masii, Machakos County, Kenya for failing to conceive after seven years of marriage. 


‘Merck More than a Mother’ initiative will support Jackline Mwende, the recent victim of infertility stigma, throughout the rest of her life after having her hands chopped off for failing to bear children. Merck aims to empower infertile women across the continent through access to information, health and change of mind-set through their initiative that been launched in June 2015 ‘More than a Mother.’

“Jackline Mwende, a young woman of 27 years from Machakos County in Kenya whose both hands were chopped off - not by thieves but by her own husband for failing to bear children. It is so shocking that someone would go to such an extent to batter his own wife and leave her nearly dead. Infertility should never be a reason to separate, hurt or kill your partner. There are so many options out there available to manage infertility” said Hon. Joyce Lay, Member of Parliament and the Ambassador for ‘Merck More than a Mother’ in Kenya.

“Through -Empowering Berna- project, Merck will support Jackline Mwende throughout the rest of her life to empower and enable her to become an independent productive member in society. ‘Merck More than a Mother’ initiative will provide Mwende with a monthly income of $250, then will establish a business for her in which she will be able to generate a sustainable monthly income of not less than $250. At the same time Merck will provide her with the needed physical and physiological rehabilitation to enable her to support herself and stand on her own two feet despite the challenge of her brutal disability that was caused by the stigma of infertility – even though her husband is the one who was found with the infertility problem, yet she is still the one who bore the devastating consequences of the public stigma associated with it." Said Rasha Kelej – Chief Social Officer, Merck Healthcare.


“Mwende didn't deserve what she went through and especially that her husband is the one who was found with the infertility problem and not her. Society, government and all stakeholders need to continue to join hands with Merck in their campaign to encourage the acceptance people live with infertility because the stigma associated with infertility puts pressure on them to a point where they do crazy and criminal things. We need to know that it's a shared responsibility, not just for the couple but for the society too,” Hon. Joyce Lay added.


"Jackline Mwende's story is the reason all people should appreciate ‘Merck More than a Mother’ initiative. No sane person should torture a woman for failing to produce children. Men should not think that their failure to be a biological father is due to women's infertility. Why torture a fellow human being and inflict such permanent bodily harm for a fault that could be yours? No amount of justice in the courts of law will bring back Mwende’s arms. Justice will only prevail if Mwende’s case marks a turning point in society that appreciates one fact- "that women are women irrespective of their ability to bear children. They need to be respected," emphasized Hon. Sarah Opendi, Ugandan Minister of State of Health and Uganda ambassador of ‘Merck more than a Mother.’



"This terrible violence Mwende suffered emphasized the significance of ‘Merck More than a Mother’ initiative for Africa. ‘Merck More than a Mother’ will continue working closely with partners to create a culture shift and to empower infertile women economically and socially through "Empowering Berna" Project to ensure no other woman in Africa should ever go through such violence, humiliation or misery again," Rasha Kelej – Chief Social Officer, Merck Healthcare emphasized.

About “Merck more than a Mother” initiative: In many cultures, childless women still suffer discrimination, stigma and ostracism. Infertility can transform from an acute, private distress into a harsh public stigma with complex and devastating consequences. An inability to have a child or to become pregnant can result in being greatly isolated, disinherited or assaulted. This may result in divorce or physical and psychological violence. “Merck More than a Mother” initiative aims to define interventions to reduce the stigma and social suffering of infertile women, empower them and raise awareness about male infertility and the necessity for a team approach to family building among couples across the continent.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), lower levels of development are thought to be associated with higher levels of non-genetic and preventable causes of infertility. For instance, poor nutrition, untreated sexually transmitted infections (STIs), unsafe abortion, consequences of infections caused by the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) or child marriage, exposure to smoking, leaded petrol and other environmental pollutants can lead to infertility.

About “Empowering Berna” Project “It is very important to empower infertile women through improving access to awareness, health and change of mind-set so they can bear children as part of their human rights. In case they can no longer be treated, ‘Empowering Berna’ project will contribute towards empowering and training them to establish their own small business so that they can be independent and re-build their own lives, a woman is more than a mother, ‘Empowering Berna’ initiative will prove this every day.” Rasha Kelej, Chief Social Officer of Merck Healthcare.

To watch the transformation of childless women after meeting “Merck more than a Mother” please watch videos below:

Stories of four infertile women who have been supported through the “Empowering Berna” Project:

The harrowing story of Jackeline Mwende, a victim of infertility Stigma in Africa:

Jackline Mwende Munywoki from Machakos, Kenya is the recent victim of the brutal physical and psychological assault that women in Africa face as a result of being infertile and are unable to bear children even when they are not the ones with the problem. She recently had her hands chopped off by her husband of five years for not conceiving and giving birth. Jackline Mwende who says she had a stable upbringing, in a loving home where she grew up with six of her siblings narrates how she came to lose her hands because of not being able to have children in her marriage.

Her parents did their best to take her to school from kindergarten up to primary school class 8. Upon completing her studies, Mwende enrolled in a tailoring school where she learnt how to sew and make garments. It was at this school that she met and fell in love with Stephen Ngila – her husband. They got married in 2011.

“A year into the marriage and with no child, I began to notice changes in my husband. He had picked up bad habits such as drinking alcohol and started to become abusive. It was at this point that I confided in my parents, who were also wondering why I had not become pregnant yet. They advised me to leave the marriage since it was becoming abusive,” Mwende narrates. “As an avid church goer, I also sought advice from my pastor,” she adds. Even at the start of the violence in the marriage, both she and Ngila would go to seek counseling from him. The pastor advised both of them to live in harmony; however, Ngila ignored. The pastor advised her to stay with her husband, of which she tried as long as she could.

Both Mwende and Ngila went to hospital for diagnosis. It was confirmed that Ngila- the husband- was infertile. “I constantly pleaded with Ngila to go to hospital to seek a treatment for his infertility, but he always made up excuses. He would say that he would go after work but never did,” she says sadly.

Their marriage continued to get strained and the abuse increased because Mwende had not borne a child. On several occasions, the couple wound up at the police station due to their fights and arguments. The couple eventually separated and Mwende set up her own small shop from where she was getting some income to support herself and even her parents.

On August 1st 2016 in the evening, Mwende was peacefully eating her dinner when she heard a knock on the door. When she went to open the door, Ngina who was drunk started to attack her with a panga (machete) and cut off her left hand. In shock, Mwende collapsed on the floor while Ngina continued to hit her with the machete on her face, and cut off her other right hand.

“Today you have decided to kill me?” Mwende recalls screaming at Ngila. His intent was to kill her, but she continued screaming until her neighbors came to her rescue and Ngila escaped. She was taken to the hospital for treatment and she is currently on medication and nursing her wounds – which will always be a constant reminder that the reason she is in the state she is now is because she never bore any children.

“If it is God’s will that I do not have a child, I am content with this,” Mwende bravely said. She is hopeful for her future and grateful for all the support the community has given her. She would not like any other couple to go through what she has experienced and advises couples to seek solutions together if they cannot have a child, and visit the hospital for check-ups regularly.


Until we see each other again, 


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2016 UNESCO-MERCK AFRICA RESEARCH SUMMIT in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


Application deadline: 30th August 2016


2016 UNESCO/Merck Africa Research Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 28th – 29th November 2016.

The UNESCO-MARS 2016 will have scientific support from UNESCO, African Union Scientific, Technical and Research Commission (AU-STRC), Ethiopia Ministry of Health, University of Cambridge, Institute Pasteur International and Merck.  MARS aims to bring together researchers from across Africa to discuss the generation, sharing and dissemination of research data and to prepare for the road ahead in developing Africa as an international hub for research excellence and scientific innovation.

The annual Summit aims to contribute to building research capacity in African research community with special focus on infectious diseases and women health. The Summit will also showcase innovative research taking place in projects, programs and initiatives across African universities and by the wider African research community.


Whom
  • Up to 100 scientists/researchers will be provided full sponsorship to attend the Summit.
  • Abstracts are invited from final year African PhD students and young investigators involved in research related to infectious disease research with the aim to improve women’s health. 
  • All should be primarily based at African research institutes and universities although collaboration within Africa as well as outside is encouraged.
UNESCO-MARS is providing opportunity for young researchers to win many exciting awards including the Best African Woman Researcher Award to recognize the outstanding contribution of African female scientists with aim to promote women in research and advance their contribution to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and the improvement and sustainable development of population health with specific emphasis on how to translate knowledge into action to improve health and make an impact on society. It will provide a networking platform for dialogue on improving global cooperation on health research and narrowing the disparities in health systems performance between developing and developed countries.Diverse set of speakers from academia, research institutes, major funding organizations of health/medical research, chairs of medical research councils, NGOs, industry, established and emergent researchers, policy makers, ministries of health and editors of scientific/medical journals will be participating.

  • Speeches, keynote lecturers and panel discussion about latest research in the areas of focus to exchange experience and share information. 
  • Workshops will cater for debates that stimulate young researchers and innovators to resolve health issues. 
  • Central gallery will provide dedicated space to display, demonstrate and discuss participants research (posters and abstracts) followed by poster sessions.

MARS 2016 Awards:

  • Up to 100 scientists/researchers will be fully sponsored by Merck to attend the Summit in Ethiopia. Their selection will be based on their abstract submission which will be peer reviewed. 
  • Abstracts are invited from final year African PhD students and young investigators involved in research related to infectious diseases with the aim to improve women health.
  • All should be primarily based at African research institutes and universities, although collaboration within Africa as well as outside is encouraged. 
  • Apart from the first three winners, applicants stand a chance to win further number of research awards.]
  • Further research awards will be dedicated for Best African Women Researchers.

Application procedure:
  • You must write: your name as “author” and the names of all your co-authors. 
  • A descriptive title, up to five key words. 
  • The topic into which your abstract fits: HIV or Ebola or other infectious diseases. 
  • Please also submit the completed application form with all the required personal details. A copy of your passport will be required later.

Submit your completed application and abstract to this address award@mars2016.net  

Fill out the online application form here. Application deadline: 30th August 2016


For more information:
Visit the official web page of the 2016 UNESCO/Merck Africa Research Summit

Until we see each other again, 



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HPV Test for Cervical Cancer Screening Now Available in Kenya

It is a well known fact that cervical cancer is the second killer cancer in Kenya after breast cancer. Caused by the Human Papiloma Viruses (HPV), the disease is the most common cancer among women between 15 and 44 years.

Advanced Cervical Cancer Screening in Kenya
Like many other degenerative diseases, detecting the cancer early maximizes the chances of treating it effectively. It is therefore unfortunate that only 4% of Kenyan women get cervical cancer screening. The tests are normally carried out by healthcare workers and involve examining and scraping cells from the cervix, an experience that can be an uncomfortable and embarrassing for most women.

A new FDA approved method has been introduced in the country by Lancet Pathologists to detect the presence of HPV before it can cause cervical cancer. The Cobas Molecular test works by detecting DNA of all high risk HPV that cause the cancer.

Since the method has the option of self collecting the cervical cells  at the comfort of their own homes before having them analyzed, it is a welcome advancement especially for the shy women who dread visits to the gynecologists.

The test is reliable, accurate and affordable for all women over 25 years, and is to be repeated every 3 to 5 years.


Until we see each other again, 


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Empowering infertile women to be more than mothers

The stigma that follows infertile women more often than not leads to complex and devastating consequences. These range from isolation, ostracism, discrimination, disinheritance, physical and psychological assault and even divorce.

“Merck More than a Mother” is a pan-African initiative that aims to build fertility capacity, raise awareness about prevention of infertility and male infertility. It also opens a dialogue to define interventions to reduce the stigma and social suffering of infertile women in Africa.  

Through “Empowering Berna” project “Merck More than a Mother” will support infertile women who can’t bear children anymore to establish their small business so that they can re-build their own independent and happier lives. They can be more than mothers.

“It is very important to empower infertile women through improving access to awareness and fertility care so they can bear children as part of their human rights. In case they can no longer be treated, “Empowering Berna” project will contribute towards empowering and training them to establish their own small business so that they can be independent and re-build their own lives, a woman is more than a mother, “Empowering Berna” initiative will prove this every day,” conveys Rasha Kelej, Chief Social Officer, Merck Healthcare.

Four African women have so far been supported through “Empowering Berna” to establish their small business and are now more than mothers – proud, independent and happier. All of them have suffered isolation, discrimination, physical and psychological assault and even been disinherited and divorced due to infertility. Below are their stories of suffering and their life transformation after meeting “Merck More than a Mother”.

Berna Amullen empowered: independent and happier


Berna Amullen is a Ugandan woman who became infertile as a result of an untreated sexually transmitted disease. She was diagnosed too late to be given proper treatment and she lost the hope of being a mother and leading a happy life.

This experience left Berna with so much agony she says. “I used to work with my husband, but he sold off all that we had acquired together so that he could marry another wife. He doesn’t even look at me as a human being anymore. He called for a large clan meeting and publicly disowned me. He even took away the farming fields that the elders had apportioned me. I was just left with a hut. He called me that stupid, barren and hopeless woman. “She has no use here,” he said.

Watch this video to see Berna’s story of suffering due to infertility.

Through the “Empowering Berna” project, Berna has been able to establish a chicken farm that has helped bring back her confidence and dignity. The society now looks at her as a woman of substance.
“I used to live under tough conditions before this project up-lifted me as a woman, I am now happy and my business is progressing well. I am lucky to have been able to begin a chicken project. I own a poultry house and chicken that I feed every day. I am very happy that this project has changed my life,” Berna proudly says.

You can watch Berna’s story of empowerment here. 

Grace Kambini empowered to stand on her own feet

Fifty-seven year old Grace Kambini from Kenya realized nine years into her marriage that she could not give birth. Both her husband and his relatives started abusing and insulting her. These extended to her home where she was tortured and frequently denied food for weeks at a time. Her husband did not care about her woes.

Grace Kambini before her transformation
Watch her story of suffering here.

“I remember asking my husband, how long I will continue to live this misery. He replied –‘You refuse to leave my house as if your parents are dead, if they are dead you should ask them to open their grave so you may join them. You are of no use to me’. Every time I remember his insult or talk about it, I feel faint and out of breath. Due to the stress I endured I suffered hypertension and diabetes, now my life is about injecting insulin day and night,” Grace said crying.

Her husband of 10 years divorced her and she started living alone with no one to support or advise her. Life became harder with each passing day. To sustain herself, she started her own small business selling potato chips by the roadside.

 “Merck More than a Mother” helped Grace to stand on her own feet by building a small local kitchen and cafeteria for her. In addition, Grace will also be enrolled with the Kenya Chamber of Commerce - Women in Business which will help her to network with other entrepreneurial women, thereby giving her a platform to generate even more business.

Grace Kambini beams at her new shop

Watch Grace’s story of empowerment here.

“My suffering and stressful life is over now I am a new person. I can now walk with my head up knowing that I have a great business that will sustain me. I am very happy with this program and I wish that Merck can continue helping many other desperate people in this world,” says Grace with a smile.

Chinelo Azodo empowered to take good care of herself

Chinelo Azodo from Nigeria is 45 years old, childless and a widow. Since getting married 13 years ago with the hope of getting children immediately and none coming, her life was been very difficult and full of ridicule and abuse from her family and community.

Chinelo has suffered constant abuse from her family and this has made her life even more miserable. Outsiders call me an old childless woman and mock me, asking me about who will help me in my old age, whether the goats and dogs will help me with the chores. These words really hurt me and I usually cry about such insults,” Chinelo says.

Her husband passed on in 2015 leaving her a widow and at the mercy of her in-laws. She is at risk of being thrown out of her matrimonial home after the traditional mourning period is over since her husband is now dead and she has no children to show from her marriage.

Chinelo has been a tailor earning less than $30 per month. “Merck More than a Mother” has come to Chinelo’s aid and have helped her venture into a new business and she is now the proud owner of a restaurant. This has restored her faith and desire to continue living. She no longer feels hopeless. She is now able to earn about US$ 120 per month up from the US$30 she got from providing tailoring services.

Chinelo Azodo, 45 year old childless widow from Nigeria

Watch Chinelo's story of suffering and empowerment here.

Chinelo says: “Before this I used to walk around stitching peoples’ torn clothes with my sewing machine. But now with the restaurant I can now take good care of myself. People say my food is delicious, I have earned their respect because of Merck, and they no longer insult me. I can now earn a better living and also save money towards adopting a child. I am a very happy woman I dance all the time.”

Noonkipa Mpalush empowered to become a productive member of society

Noonkipa Enole Mpalush, a 55 year old childless Maasai woman lives in the heart of Kenya. Her husband left her 15 years ago because she could not bear children. She was constantly blamed and the finger pointed at her over the fact that she could not bear children; she was made to feel as if she was the sole problem for not being able to bear children in her marriage.

“Being an oppressed infertile Maasai woman is the worst thing that can happen to anyone,” Noonkipa says sadly.

As part of the initiative to empower and train women so that they can re-build and lead independent and happier lives, “Merck More than a Mother” has provided Noonkipa with two cows to enable her to become a productive member of society. Each cow can produce six litres of milk per day. With two cows, she will be able to make around USD 6 (Ksh 600) per day.

Noonkipa Mpalush

Watch her story of suffering and empowerment here.

“But now my life has changed with the help of Merck, I am happy and proud because I can support myself. Now I am more than a mother”, says Noonkipa with a beaming smile."

Until we see each other again, 


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A Rat Study Links Maternal Intake of Highly-Oxidized Fish Oil to Newborn Death

In a study that was published recently in the American Journal of Physiology, researchers at the Liggins Institute, University of Auckland in New Zealand found that nearly 30% of newborn rat pups born to pregnant moms fed with highly oxidized fish oil died within 2 days after birth. These rat mothers who'd been given the 'off' fish oil also had higher incidences of insulin resistance at weaning as compared to that had been given water or unoxidized supplements.

Oxidized fish oils cause newborn deaths
The study was necessitated by a previous research that found that 83% of fish oil supplements sold in New Zealand were oxidized beyond the levels recommended internationally. The same has been discovered in other studies in areas like North America, Europe and South Africa. According to these studies, Omega 3 fatty acids break down when exposed to natural conditions such as heat, light and oxygen as a result of their chemical fragility and instability.

Once this was discovered, it became necessary for the researchers to look into the health effects of these oxidized fish oils during and after pregnancy. And though some negative health effects were expected on the rat off-springs,  the death rates surprised researchers.



Until we see each other again, 


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Making a huge difference in Africa – Merck CSO Rasha Kelej tells us about “Creating ‘Merck more than a Mother”


Rasha Kelej - left
Rasha Kelej is the convener of the Merck more than a Mother campaign. She is the Chief Social Officer (CSO) and Vice-President of Merck Healthcare. She wishes to raise awareness about discrimination, stigma and ostracism women undergo for their inability to have a child and also to encourage men to acknowledge and discuss openly their fertility problems and strive for an approach to family building with their partners in order to progress towards shared fertility responsibility among couples.

Q: “Merck More than a Mother” campaign is a great initiative to empower an unprivileged category of women in Africa, women who suffer infertility. How did you get this idea, as we know this is the first time a campaign has ever addressed this issue in such a unique way?

Rasha: You are right, the Merck more than a Mother campaign is historic. At first, I visited several African villages and rural areas for other programs, which I created for Africa, called Merck Capacity Advancement program where we raise awareness about diabetes, hypertension and cancer. I spoke to many women as I went round during those awareness campaigns.  One of the women I met shared with me her devastating story of suffering stigma, abuse and isolation due to her infertility. This was the day I decided to create a campaign to change this negative mindset and you can say that “Merck more than a Mother” was born at that moment. I spent a month preparing, planning and creating materials, to the point where I couldn’t sleep properly until Belen Garijo- CEO of Merck Healthcare approved it. She too, was was full of passion and wanted to make the campaign happen; and then we start executing.

Q: Why do you think it is important to empower these women who faced infertility?

Rasha: Infertile women in Africa have been neglected, mistreated and discriminated because they cannot bear children. This is not right and has to change.

The campaign will empower infertile women in Africa through improving access to information, awareness, health and a change of mindset.

This campaign is very important since in Africa, one couple in every four are infertile - a high percentage compared to the developed countries. Although, 85% of those infertility cases are preventable since it is a result of untreated infectious diseases, such as STDs, child marriage, female genital mutation (FGM), unsafe abortion or delivery. And women are overwhelmingly blamed for infertility and discriminated, abused and mistreated by their husbands, families and community all because of infertility.

Even though 50% of infertility is due to the male factor, men do not want to admit or share this responsibility.

“Merck more than a Mother” campaign works closely with policy makers, parliament members, governments, academia, healthcare providers and media in order to define interventions to reduce the social suffering of those women and improve access to regulated fertility care via supporting Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) policies across the continent. The campaign works to raise awareness about infertility prevention, management and male infertility. Moreover it will also work with all relevant stakeholders to make a change in negative mindset and the culture of stigmatizing of infertile women and infertility at large.

Q: In your opinion, why do you believe that “Merck more than a Mother” is a unique campaign and what makes it successful? Already we can see the social media channels have thousands of people from all walks of life following you, plus they are all sharing their experience and insights, and trying to make a difference. 

Rasha: As I mentioned before, this campaign is very close to my heart as an African woman and as a pharmacist, and it is very important for Merck, as the world leader in fertility management. Most importantly, it is very critical for Africa. This is the first time someone has opened up to talk and discuss this issue that affects childless women and how they have been and still are abused, mistreated and discriminated by their husbands, families and communities. Knowing these facts is sad, and I knew we must do something about it; it is not a matter of choice anymore, it is our duty and responsibility.

This campaign was successful and has already made and will continue to make a difference because it covers most, if not all, of the relevant angle’s of the infertility in the continent, such as; creating a culture shift to respect and appreciate the infertile women in Africa, raising awareness about infertility prevention and management and male infertility by integrating it into healthcare infrastructure such as HIV, maternal health and mother and child programs.

The campaign also runs education and training for African embryologists since lack of trained and skilled staff is a big challenge, and we have started our first training for African embryologists to improve access to effective and safe fertility care in the continent. We are also defining ART policies to improve access to regulated fertility care.

The campaign seek to build advocacy and open dialogue with governments, policy makers, parliaments, healthcare providers and media to define interventions to reduce the social suffering and improve access to regulated, effective and safe fertility care in Africa.

Furthermore, the campaign also empowers infertile women through creating awareness, access to healthcare and a change of mindset by re-building the lives of women who cannot be pregnant anymore through starting a small business for them to be independent and live happy lives through the “Empowering Berna“ Initiative.

Q: Where did you start the Merck more than a Mother campaign and how was it received by all relevant stakeholders?

Rasha: We started the campaign, in Kenya, and then Uganda. Plus, we have kicked off Pan-African panels in New York to mark CSW60, and the panel discussions have continued in Egypt and in Finland at the European Society of Human reproduction and embryology. As you can see from the photos on the Merck more than a Mother social media pages, Ministers of Health and Gender, Senators, Members of Parliament, Academia, African associations, Healthcare providers, all welcomed the campaign and have shown their commitment to it by starting to implement the two important projects we have created: “Merck Africa Embryology Training” and “Empowering Berna”
We have been invited to present the campaign at the International Federation of Fertility Societies- IFFS in Delhi, India on 23rd of September and we shall kick off the Merck more than a mother campaign in Nigeria on the 27th of September in partnership with Africa fertility Society, Nigerian Parliament and Federal Ministry of Health of Nigeria.

Q: Can you tell us more about the “Merck Africa Embryology Training” project and the “Empowering Berna initiative?

A: Through “Merck more than a Mother” we have started two important projects:

First one was the Merck Africa embryology-training program, which is very important for improving access to regulated fertility care in the continent. I have started this program because as you may know, there are no African embryologists in many of sub- Saharan African countries; hence it was very critical to establish this platform so we can reduce the cost of IVF and also ensure that it is of good quality.

The second initiative is called “Empowering Berna,” where we are going to help infertile women who cannot have children anymore to start their own independent, happier lives.

I believe it is very important to empower infertile women through improving access to awareness, health and change of negative mindset so they can bear children as part of their human rights. In case an infertile woman can no longer be treated,” Empowering Berna” project will contribute towards empowering and training them to establish their own small business so that they can be independent and re-build their own lives.


Q: Can you share with us the success stories of the Merck more than a Mother campaign?

Rasha: There have been numerous success stories and in a very short time. For me, the most important success stories are the transformation of the lives of the infertile women after meeting Merck more than a Mother, through the Empowering Berna project. Before, these women had been programed all their lives to know that they are a “Baby making machine,” and that this was their only purpose in life, when they failed to achieved it, they lost hope in life and they were just waiting to die.
Through empowering Berna project, their lives have transformed in no time, from hopeless, helpless women to stronger women, who are productive members of the society. The women are now full of pride and self-confidence: they simply became more than a mother.

When I got to know about the un-privileged women in Africa, who suffered stigma, discrimination and abuse and who cannot have children anymore, I knew that I had to be part of a solution, and a project to help them re- build their shattered lives, stand back on their own feet. If empowering them economically is the only solution to lead them to their own independent happy lives and earn back the respect and acknowledgment of their communities, we will do it.

I am determined to find infertile women in Africa and help them - This will be my purpose in life. There are also other success stories that I find very important, such as the changes that happened that will help infertile women in the future so they have better access to information, awareness, fertility care and change of mindset, such as the approval of the first ART Bill in Kenya by Kenyan parliamentarians. We supported this and I am happy that it has finally happened.

In Uganda, the ART guidelines are under Development by Minister of State of Health, Hon. Sarah Opendi who is the Merck more than a Mother Ambassador for Uganda, and the guidelines will be out soon.

There is a very interesting law that will be enforced by Minister of Land, Housing and Urban development of Uganda, Hon. Betty Amongi, that ensures that women will be able to inherit from their blood family and not from only their husbands’ families like it used to happen in Uganda. This law enforcement will empower women to choose when to marry and have children and it will help empowering infertile women since they will not end up with nothing if they cannot bear children, this is a great achievement.

During our latest panel the Senator, Chairman Committee on Health Nigeria, Dr. Lanre Tejuosho, who has been appointed as Merck More than a Mother Ambassador in Nigeria, has committed to approve a similar bill for Nigeria too before the kick off in September, this is a success story.

I am sure that more and more success stories will happen in the future.

Q: The kickoff of Merck More than a Mother in Nigeria will be on the 27th of September in partnership with the Federal Ministry of Health and Parliament. How do you see the Senate of Commission of Health together with Ministry of Health taking this forward to make a change in the policies, and improving the access to fertility care in Nigeria? How do you think the campaign will empower women in Nigeria?

Rasha: Before we kickoff the campaign in Nigeria, we will work on the preparation period of building advocacy messages to raise awareness about infertility prevention, male infertility and sensitize the community to change the culture of discriminating and disrespecting infertile women.

We will also partner with the Senate Committee on Health and Federal Ministry of Health, Africa Fertility Society to execute our “Empowering Berna” Project, by locating the women who need support and reaching out to them across the country.

Above all, we will support government in defining their ART bill to regulate fertility care in the country. Moreover, we will help integrate awareness messages about infertility prevention and male infertility in our healthcare system. We shall partner with Africa Fertility Society to provide training for young Nigerian embryologists to build fertility care capacity in Nigeria.

What I like about this campaign is that it is serious, structured, has a great strategy and relevant achievable solutions. Therefore, it is not only talk but serious actions, I never imagined that in just short time we would have a fully pledged campaign in the most populated country in Africa. We are grateful for the support and the commitment of our partners in Nigeria. Without them we will never achieve these results

Q: We heard that you go all over African rural areas by yourself and you do this frequently. How can you do all this?

Rasha: Yes, I do this exactly, it is part of my life, and you have to remember I am African, but most importantly I totally believe that it is the only way to know Africa’s challenges and solutions, that way you can create and implement successful programs. You need to get in touch with Africa’s communities.

If you are not in touch with the grassroots, knowing Africa from the internet in your office is never the same and will never help you leave a significant impact like we do.

For me, African villages and rural areas are the destination of inspiration, I have to meet community members speak with them, understand them and see how they live and what they need first hand and not second hand and third hand.

I take this job seriously and I am determined to make a huge difference.


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