Nurse Theresa Poole spent her days this month offering health screening and medications as a volunteer in the Republic of Zambia.

She delivered analgesics to suffering patients and taught HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. Poole returned home to her job at the Rosewood Care Centers, residential centers serving several communities in Illinois. In Africa, she served as the team leader of the nursing mission where she and seven colleagues chronicled their journey on a Web site designed for their visit. The mission, called Nurses for Africa, continues and eight more Rosewood nurses will depart July 23

Nurses for Africa, is sponsored by Ten Talents, a Christian foundation that primarily supports projects in developing countries and the nursing program addresses a desperate need. According to the World Health Organization, Zambia has only 20 nurses per 10,000 people, compared to 84 nurses per 10,000 people in the United States. At the same time, Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 67 percent of all people living with HIV and 72 percent of the world’s AIDS deaths, according to the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS 2008 report.

“If we go with the attitude that we’re just giving, we can miss the boat. Americans can gain a lot,” said Paul Thonnard, a St. Louis-based manager for Ten Talents.

Although not every part of Africa is plagued by a nursing crisis, Poole said she has seen firsthand the continent’s extreme poverty and how the HIV/AID epidemic is creating millions of orphans and other myriad health problems.

“I hope to share the stories of some of the people we met and especially the condition of the schools and find others who will be willing to serve or to donate,” she said. “Because the task is overwhelming, it doesn’t mean we should do nothing. If each of us helped one child; that would make a difference.”

Nurses for Africa is one of several Illinois programs tackling the nursing shortage in Africa.

Chicago nurse practitioner Maura Capaul visited a hospital in the United Republic of Tanzania several years ago and found one nurse serving an entire ward of 40 patients. The nurse started an IV drip on a child in the pediatric ward and then spirited to deliver a baby in the maternity ward.

Several such trips convinced Capaul, a nurse for 14 years that she too wanted to help. In 2005, she launched a program offering nursing scholarships to young women in Tanzania and Kenya. It too is called Nurses for Africa, sponsored by the Chicago-based Global Alliance for Africa. The nonprofit organization supports programs and groups in East African countries that help children orphaned or affected by HIV/AIDS.

The alliance’s Nurses for Africa program offers scholarships that cover room and board, tuition and entrance exam fees. The women achieve an entry-level nursing certificate after four years and countries like Tanzania and Kenya desperately need their services.

Medical care varies widely from country to country in Africa. While Tanzania has a very advanced university system-and the University at Darussalam has an established research nursing program-not enough nurses graduate, and fewer still serve in rural areas, Capaul noted.

“The countries that I had traveled in, including Tanzania and Kenya, are amazing, beautiful, incredibly vibrant places that have so little in terms of infrastructure and development,” she said.

In addition, Tanzania only has four nurses per 10,000 people and Kenya only 12, WHO statistics show. The program attempts to alleviate this problem by asking graduates to return the favor.

“Nurses that go to our program are required to go back to their communities and serve. That’s one of our stipulations,” said Katy Egan, director of development and communications for the Global Alliance.

Capaul founded the program with her parents and a colleague from the University of Illinois Nurse Practitioner program. Capaul’s parents, who live in Boulder, Col., do fundraising for the program. She and her colleague offer Global Alliance for Africa their healthcare expertise. They work with two different Tanzanian nursing schools, Huruma, a Catholic hospital with a nursing school run by Tanzanian nuns, and Haydom, a Lutheran hospital run by Europeans with local instructors. Students from both Kenya and Tanzania attend the schools.

Nursing means a secure future for students such as Beatrice Waithera. Born in Kenya, Waithera and her brother were orphaned at a young age and kicked out of their home by relatives, Capaul said. The children made their way from central Kenya to slums outside of Nairobi, where they were taken in and educated through the Global Alliance program. Waithera is now in her third year of the nursing program and her brother works as a driver in Nairobi. Capaul called her one of the best students in the nursing school.

“Nursing right now in Africa is a lot about dealing with loss, and the challenge for these students is that they’ve already had a tremendous amount of loss in their lives, and I am just so impressed with the way they cope with that,” Capaul said.

Another intervention program funded by the National Institute for Child Health and Development of the National Institutes of Health educated young Malawian women in basic health issues. Led by two trained community women and a local health worker, sessions included HIV prevention strategies, use of contraceptives and healthcare training. But that program ended two years ago.

Capaul believes the nursing program’s scholarships are directly addressing the problem of nurse migration from Africa. On her last trip to Tanzania, Capaul sat in on a class about birthing practices while a woman gave birth in the hospital room nearby. As she walked past the room, she saw how nurses placed the newborn in a sunny spot of the room for warmth.

To Capaul, this was a real lesson on “what an excellent job people do with so little.”