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Lecture kicks off University’s inaugural Haiti week

Katie Wagner | Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Father Thomas Streit, the director of Notre Dame’s Haiti Program, Stephen Silliman, a civil engineering and environmental geological sciences professor and senior Brian McElroy discussed their Haiti work experiences in the Colman-Morse Center Lounge Monday at a kickoff event for the University’s first Haiti Week.

The University’s Haiti Program is working on eliminating lymphatic filariasis (LF), better known as elephantiasis, from the country and helping those people who already have contracted the disease, Streit said. The program was started by Streit during the late 1990s and received a large grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 1999.

“Lymphatic filariasis is one of the five diseases that are believed by the world health council to be eliminable,” Streit said. “The Haiti program and the biology department are primarily interested in, among many things, the elimination of a disease.”

LF is an ancient disease spread by mosquitoes involving worms that are passed from mosquitoes to humans. The worm damages the lymphatic system, and the parts where the parasite is living can also be affected, such as the breasts, limbs and genitals.

“Everyone was surprised when we first starting looking to see how widespread the infection was. They [the medical community] just didn’t seem to see that much of elephantiasis,” Streit said. “In reality of course many of the people with the disease, they stay at home, they hide the disease because it is so embarrassing, so ostracizing socially.”

The disease is linked to poor sanitation because the mosquito that spreads the disease lives in sewage water, Streit said.

The Haiti program has been taking on the enormous task of adding DEC, the drug that kills the parasite carrying LF, and iodine to the entire country’s salt supply, Streit said. He added that his program’s main objective is to “stop the parasite from affecting the next generation.”

“I’m delighted to say that we’ve been able to participate with the Haitian government in building the capacity to as I’ve said to reach this holy grail of public health, actually eliminating the disease,” he said.

One way the Haiti program helps victims of LF is by educating them on germ theory and hygiene.

Streit said that at the Notre Dame residence where people in the program stay, he and members of the program have trained “hundreds and hundreds of patients” on how to deal with the infection.

“We’ve increased the number of people we’ve been treating around the country every year until last year we reached over a million people,” he said. “We also have eliminated the costs of our program.”

Silliman spoke about a separate Notre Dame program called the Haiti seminar, in which he prepares students at the University to repair hand-pumps in Haiti to try to prevent gastro-intestinal diseases caused by unfiltered water.

He said that every single well he has tested in the past 10 years has been contaminated with pathogens.

Silliman also said that his group does more than simply teach the Haitians how to fix hand-pumps.

“We work with the local population to develop local empowerment,” Silliman said. McElroy, an economics and political science major, discussed his experiences working with the small businesses of the Association of Fondwa in Fondwa, Haiti during the summer of 2003. He also taught English and computers with senior Danny Richter, recipient of the Alumni Association’s Distinguished Student of the Year Award.

McElroy will be spending the next year teaching English at the University of Fondwa, Haiti’s first and only rural university.

“The most wonderful thing about Haiti … is the people,” McElroy said.

Streit and Silliman said that they learned a great deal from the Haitians.

“We think there’s a lot the University can offer and a lot that Haiti can do for the University,” Streit said. “We want to invite other expertise within the University that can help in the process of rebuilding Haiti [after many years of struggle].”

Although undergraduate students have not been able to work in Haiti for the past year and a half, currently three recent Notre Dame graduates are working there and Silliman and a group of graduate students will be traveling to Haiti soon.

“It’s easy to come up with solutions here at the University … but it’s hard to apply those solutions to the developing world,” Streit said.

Senior Naima Joseph, who works for the Haitian program, was responsible for buying food and contacting the speakers. She did most of the Haitian cooking served at the event.

Student International Business Council headed the marketing for the event.

To complete Haiti week, a series of interactive presentations will be given by Djhalkoi Dessables on Feb. 22, 23 and 24 at Saint Mary’s. Presentations will also be given Feb. 23 in Notre Dame’s Riley Hall (“Design Solutions: Cross Disciplinary Appro-aches to Salt, Health, and Haiti”) and Feb. 25 at the Snite Museum (“Haitian Vodoo: Arts, Culture, and Religion”).