ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA—Shattering stereotypes has always been paramount to Ethiopian neurologist Mehila Zebenigus, MD, who has defied sexism in her native country to seek higher education and broken down cultural barriers to improve health care access.
Soft-spoken and petite, 35-year-old Dr. Zebenigus exudes an aura of warmth and gentleness that is not lost on her patients or colleagues. Yet she also has nerves of steel, working tirelessly at a private clinic in Addis Ababa to treat patients with neurologic disorders and collaborating with international neurologists to improve training in her country. It is because of her compassionate nature — she wants to take care of everyone, friends say — and her accomplishments as the first woman neurologist in Ethiopia that she is known as her country's “mother of neurology.”
The colloquial title is fine with Dr. Zebenigus, who graduated last year from Addis Ababa University Faculty of Medicine's neurology training program — established in 2006, it is the first neurology residency program in the country. Yet Dr. Zebenigus, who was chief resident of the program's first class of graduates, does not hesitate to give credit where credit is due; she is vocal in her praise for Guta Zenebe, MD, an Ethiopian neurologist at Addis Ababa University Faculty of Medicine's Black Lion Hospital, who was a driving force behind the creation of the neurology training program.
Dr. Zenebe inspired her to become a neurologist, Dr. Zebenigus told Neurology Today. And over the past few years, the two have collaborated on studies.
Dr. Zebenigus knew she wanted a career in medicine at an early age. Her earliest memories include watching her mother, a pharmacist at Black Lion Hospital, and other health care workers in “white gowns” deliver care to patients, and hoping she could one day do the same.
Because Dr. Zebenigus grew up in an educated family in which her father (a member of the Ministry of Education who wrote science textbooks) and mother viewed men and women as equals, she was more fortunate than the most girls in 1970s Ethiopia, who were reared to keep house.
“As a child I was brought up with ample love and support from my parents, whose primary aim in life was to have their kids have great education and grow up to be self-sufficient and strong,” she said.
Even today, most families, particularly those in the rural regions, embrace the traditional model of raising girls to be relegated to the home rather than professionals in the workforce. Outside the capital city, it is difficult for everyone — especially girls — to get an education.
This lack of education impacts how Ethiopians view illness. (For instance, many of the health problems in Ethiopia are preventable diseases like HIV and malaria, and public misconceptions about epilepsy and movement disorders abound.)
It also contributes to the shortage of medical school applicants. Men still outnumber women in medical schools, particularly in specialties like cardiology and neurology. When Dr. Zebenigus was in medical school, women constituted between 0 and 10 percent of medical school students. Now that figure is between 30 and 40 percent. However, there is a still long way to go to ensure that the medical needs of the country's 80 million residents are met, and the field of neurology is no exception.
Training and retaining neurologists in Ethiopia is so important, said Dr. Zebenigus, adding that she hopes more women will follow in her footsteps and choose neurology as a specialty.
She is also cognizant of the fact that improving neurologic care in Ethiopia will require a profound shift in cultural attitudes and resources mobilization, as well as aid from the local government and support from overseas.
Having experienced firsthand the benefits from international networking — in 2007 she received the World Federation of Neurology Junior Traveling Fellowship to attend the 13th Congress of the International Headache Society in Stockholm, Sweden — she advocates collaboration with neurologists from the U.S. and Europe. In addition to her practice and teaching duties in the neurology department at Black Lion Hospital, Dr. Zebenigus regularly corresponds with neurologists and other physicians who have donated educational materials, equipment, and expertise to the small neurology community in Ethiopia.
Despite the hardships to practicing neurology in Ethiopia — medication shortages, social stigmas, cost concerns — Dr. Zebenigus remains upbeat about enhancing the quality of care in her country. And she has never wavered from her devotion to this mission, noting that she will never leave her country to practice medicine.
Along with her mentor, Dr. Zenebe, she is a go-to Ethiopian neurologist for international experts who want to help improve neurologic care in her beloved country.