On April 2, many of the world’s experts on Global Health met in Paris at the Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) event, and pledged to place more emphasis on the diseases that are often overlooked by those who determine policy and hold the purse strings. Billions of people—and the governments and NGOs serving them—suffer from the drastic impact of these diseases on virtually every aspect of medical care and daily life. Neglecting them is no longer an option. As medical students, we often read about the outcomes of these distant meetings in the same way we scan over the stock market closing prices (with $100,000 of education debt) or ask about the final score of the Superbowl (while studying); however, my relationship to this meeting was remarkably different, thanks to a moving experience I had at the Unite for Sight Global Health and Innovation Conference.
The Unite for Sight Global Health and Innovation Conference took place this past weekend, just two weeks after the discussion in Paris. Presenting my poster on soil-transmitted helminthiasis (STH) in the indigenous Panamanian population served by Floating Doctors , I expected a few students to passively glance at my tables as they walked past. Instead, I found myself surrounded by professionals with senior positions in well-known global health organizations.
This surprised me, as my research, which deals with the consequences of conditions seldom experienced here in the US, rarely generates great excitement. With Floating Doctors I found that even treated aqueducts cannot deliver clean water to villages when their cracked PVC pipes run through livestock pastures, and TOMS generous donations cannot prevent STH when school children carry their shoes through the fields to keep them clean. Additionally, the well-intentioned bi-annual school-based anthelmintic distributions are either not happening or are ineffective, because over 50% of children in Floating Doctors clinics continue to present with complaints of helminthiasis.
When asked for a solution, I sheepishly replied, “Well, it seems like an impossible problem.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth a senior research officer from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation smiled and firmly said, “No. It is not impossible. That is why we are here. We will help you find a way.” In that moment, the discussion in Paris became less of a distant news story. It brought hope and inspiration to not just me, but to Floating Doctors, a tiny powerhouse of an NGO, and most importantly, to the STH-burdened populations we serve.
My motivation for sharing this experience is to follow it with a sincere request: On behalf of all idealistic and motivated global health students and young professionals, I ask you to please maintain your enthusiasm for tackling these unglamorous and devastating NTDs beyond these first two weeks, and beyond the next few years. Help us turn the fight to reduce and ultimately eliminate NTDs into a challenging, motivating, gratifying, and feasible lifetime career that we can pass on to the students who follow us.
A Yale infectious disease physician made it very clear, as he showed me live hookworm larvae under a microscope in his lab, that the solution to the NTD problem cannot be achieved with plans, protocols, and medications alone. In order to create a truly sustainable fight, young scientists, physicians, and public health professionals must be supported and inspired to research these problems with fresh eyes and open minds.
To those who participated in motivating or making the decision to invest in well-informed steps toward combating the preventable diseases that devastate the health, economy, and educational productivity of people like those served by Floating Doctors, I extend a whole-hearted Thank You!
Hannah Elsevier, MD/MPH Candidate, APHA International Health Student Committee Co-Chair