The Yale School of Medicine’s International Health Program will benefit from increased support provided by the program’s chief sponsor, health care giant Johnson and Johnson Co.

Johnson and Johnson announced last week it would designate the program a corporate “Signature Program,” meaning the company — which has funded International Health Program proposals for the past two years — will accord the program high priority in the disbursement of future grants and funds. Founded in 1981 by Yale Medical School professors Michelle Barry and Frank Bia, the program provides Medical School residents at Yale-New Haven Hospital an opportunity to work in hospitals throughout the developing world.

Barry said she believes Johnson and Johnson came aboard because the company was impressed that doctors who participated in the program, as residents have remained dedicated to the underprivileged in their medical practices. Her goal is and has been “to instill a sense of global citizenry” in participants, Barry said. Johnson and Johnson’s support will make it easier for residents to pay medical and travel expenses, rendering the program more accessible.

To date, International Health Program residents have served in nearly 20 Third World countries, including Zimbabwe, Brazil, Nepal, Cuba, South Africa and Haiti. There, they confront diseases long eradicated in the West, among them malaria, dengue and river blindness.

Bia said he and Barry founded the program not only to reach the less fortunate, but to provide medical residents an invaluable experience.

“I think the big picture is that there are a lot of people training in medicine who want more than a tertiary care, highly technical Yale-New Haven [Hospital] experience,” Bia said. “That’s not enough.”

Participation in the program is required for Yale residents seeking certification in tropical diseases, a specialty now attracting increased attention. With American immigration levels rising, and with most immigrants arriving from developing countries, health experts are concerned about the spread of such diseases in the United States.

According to Bia, New York City is especially vulnerable, given that one in three New Yorkers was born abroad.

Though the International Health Program generates a high level interest on campus, traveling to the Third World is not without risks. Some residents have run into difficulties overseas, like the “one resident who got hijacked in India, and [who] actually participated in getting the hijackers arrested,” Barry said. Others have contracted malaria.

And, according to Bia, a mission to Haiti once had to be temporarily suspended when the country plunged into civil unrest. It is now up and running again.

Conrad Person, Johnson and Johnson’s director of international programs, said his company backs the program for the nobility of its cause.

“The support of the program supports a style of care that really is compassionate and human in its approach,” Person said. “We think that it does represent our company well.”

Bia said Johnson and Johnson’s help will also enable the program to expand.

“They will help us to have a greater presence in India,” Bia said. “They have an infrastructure there … [and] we don’t.”