Fr. Thomas Streit, Notre Dame biology professor and leader of the Haiti Program, and Gregory Crawford, dean of the College of Science, joined forces with the Carter Center in Atlanta, which committed to the eradication of diseases in many countries around the world, Streit said.
The Center has a special interest in the eradication of lymphatic filariasis and malaria from the island of Hispaniola, which includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
“They’re not interested in just one country or two countries — they’re interested in the global picture,” Streit said. “And President Carter thinks that this island in the Caribbean so close to the United States is a great opportunity to make some real progress and to show the world that, yeah, we have the tools and there is the political will to get this done.”
Notre Dame’s Haiti Program has worked with the Haitian government and other partners to develop a plan for treatment and eradication of the disease, which Carter endorsed in his visit to Haiti last week.
Carter also spoke at a press conference in Haiti, which Streit said gave attention to both the disease and efforts to eradicate it.
“People pay attention to him, he’s a respected elder statesman, he’s a former Nobel Peace Prize winner, so people listen,” he said. “And so President Carter talked about the plan, he mentioned Notre Dame a couple of times and he very warmly endorsed the idea.”
Streit has worked in Haiti with this disease for 17 years. He helped found the University’s Haiti Program in 1997 to conduct research and work to treat the people of Haiti for lymphatic filariasis, also known as elephantiasis.
“It’s a worm parasite carried by mosquitoes,” Streit said.
One and a half million Haitians are affected by lymphatic filariasis, but the eradication plan involves the treatment of every person in the country, he said. The treatment also provides a cure for other parasites in addition to elephantiasis.
“We’re up to half the population, so this year we’ll treat 4.5 million people,” he said. “Because people have other worm parasites too, not just the one that causes elephantiasis.”
Streit said lymphatic filariasis is also linked to poverty, as it has already been eradicated from wealthier countries and only thrives in areas of extreme poverty.
“If you can eradicate poverty, you can eradicate this disease,” he said. “But the other side of that is if you can eradicate this disease, you can help to eradicate the poverty.”
In the past 10 years, the program has received two major grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, totaling $10 million. These grants provided funding for research about elephantiasis, which Streit said becomes quite complex when applied to the entire country of Haiti.
“When we’re in a laboratory here [at Notre Dame] … you can control the problems that crop up,” he said. “But an experiment that involves millions of humans is much harder to control. We needed to be there to judge what changes needed to be made, and there have been quite a few significant ones in the strategy.”
The worm infections present in Haiti are known as neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), Streit said.
A new student group of campus this year, ND Fighting NTDs, aims to raise awareness about NTDs. The group grew out of Streit’s biology course in common human diseases.
There are drugs available to cure each of the seven NTDs, and it only costs 50 cents to provide treatment to one person, freshman Emily Conron, a member of the group and a current student of Streit’s, said.
“We’re dedicated to raising awareness first, and probably funds later down the road about the seven most common neglected tropical diseases,” she said. “Most people have never heard of these diseases or how widespread they are or that there are already cures for them.”
Streit said he is optimistic that by raising awareness and continuing to treat people with NTDs, it will be possible to eradicate them. Lymphatic filariasis is just one of the diseases for which there is already enough research to complete its eradication.
“Only one disease has ever been eradicated through the work of humans, so it’s really historic if we can do it again,” he said. “And there are right now five diseases on the list to be eradicated, where we believe the science provides us with the tools to eradicate those diseases.”