By Grace Ryan, Department of Community Health, Inshuti Mu Buzima/Partners In Health

The world’s first international conference on community health (ICCH) was held in Kigali, Rwanda, from 25-28 January 2011 on the theme: “The Role of Community Health in Strengthening Health Systems”. ICCH represents a collaborative effort between Rwanda’s Ministry of Health and its development partners, including Partners In Health. The conference brought 500 participants from 13 different countries to Kigali to share lessons, best practices, and research in community health. 

The ICCH was organized into nine sessions based on WHO building blocks for health system strengthening. Session themes ranged from equitable access to essential medical products, to community health financing, to the role of good governance in strengthening the community health system. Overseas participants from India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Timor, and the United States presented alongside representatives of community health programs in North, East, South, West, and Central Africa. Each session concluded with a lively discussion on the unique challenges of service delivery across the globe, as well as potential applications of presenters’ findings to inform program development internationally, building up to the ratification of an ICCH Consensus Statement.

Highlights included inaugural and closing addresses by Minister of Health Dr. Richard Sezibera and remarks by Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Health Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, setting the tone for the conference as an important milestone in the history of community health in Rwanda and around the world. Keynote speeches from Professor David Sanders of the University of the Western Cape School of Public Health in South Africa and Partners In Health’s own Dr. Paul Farmer underlined the importance of significant investment in community health programs in order to improve national health indicators. A field visit to the Musanze District community health program  showcased Rwanda’s performance-based financing system for community health worker (CHW) cooperatives, as well as the work of its maternal, pediatric, and chronic disease care CHWs, and the new Rapid SMS program that allows pediatric CHWs to communicate data to health centers in real time. Finally, a trip to the Gisozi genocide memorial underscored the changes seen in Rwanda over the past seventeen years through strong leadership and an emphasis on human resource and infrastructural development.

The ICCH steering committee chaired by Dr. Fidele Ngabo, Director of the Ministry of Health’s Maternal and Child Health Unit, and Kathy Mugeni, Coordinator of the Community Health Department, is now designing a web-based community health forum in order to harness the spirit of intellectual curiosity and exchange that made this conference a success. Visitors to the ICCH website can already view the summit’s consensus statement and download presentations of summit participants (including lectures by PIH Rwanda’s Director of Community Health Didi Bertrand Farmer and Director of Research Dr. Michael Rich). Soon visitors will also be able to post short articles, comment on presentations, and discuss important themes in community health on the forum page. Steering committee members are working to make this forum a place where everyone with a stake in community health, from international health experts and governmental representatives to village leaders and CHWs, can learn from one another to build better health systems worldwide.