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Professors fight disease in Haiti

Maureen Mullen | Thursday, March 30, 2006

Notre Dame chemistry professor Emil T. Hofman returned Tuesday from a four-day visit in Haiti, where he connected with biology professor Father Thomas Streit to treat native Haitians afflicted with lymphatic filariasis – a disease that progresses into the more commonly known affliction elephantiasis.

Elephantiasis, a horrific and debilitating condition, is a mosquito-borne infection that affects more than 120 million people throughout the tropics. Hofman said the disease causes infectious swelling in the limbs and genitalia of the afflicted if it goes untreated.

Hofman and Notre Dame’s presence in Haiti can be attributed to Streit, who became involved with the study and treatment of elephantiasis after he accepted a postdoctoral position with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While posted in Haiti, Streit conducted research on the nature of the disease. He established the University’s Haiti Program after joining the Notre Dame faculty in 1997. In 1999, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Notre Dame a $5.2 million grant to build facilities and offer program support for the elimination of filariasis in Haiti.

Hofman said Streit spends on average eight months a year in the region, and he has recently focused part of the program’s efforts on the AIDS epidemic in Haiti.

Hofman’s own involvement in the program began last August after he traveled on a “reconnaissance trip” to Haiti, he said. He first learned of the University’s efforts in the region when Streit was invited to campus as the keynote speaker in the Emil T. Hofman lecture series – an annual lecture series dedicated to Hofman and his many years of teaching at Notre Dame.

“Father Streit was to give the lecture this fall, and as I learned more and more about the program in Haiti, I decided I wanted to go and experience it,” Hofman said.

And so he did. Hofman said he “went against all of the cautionary warnings that [he] received because of all the perceived conditions in Haiti.”

“The Haitian people generally are very, very fine people despite the conditions in which they live,” he said. “Most of the very violent crime is from drug lords from Columbia using Haiti as traffic center.”

Hofman said his first visit to Haiti last fall sparked an idea that gave his most recent trip an even greater purpose.

“While I was there [in August], the idea occurred to me to involve as many of my former students as possible in the project,” he said.

Hofman – who first began teaching at Notre Dame in the 1950s – said he has taught an estimated 32,000 students. Of those former students, two are noble prizewinners, a handful are university leaders and thousands are doctors, engineers and scientists.

“The way I hope to get [students] involved is first of all by encouraging them to make reconnaissance visits of their own,” Hofman said.

Hofman said he hopes student trips might dispel some of the misunderstandings and fear people have about Haiti. Hofman said reconnaissance visits could also offer an opportunity to learn more about filariasis and AIDS from the resident doctors who live in Streit’s compound.

“I encourage [students] to then make a more lengthy commitment to stay for some future time so that they can provide for the healthcare of the patients,” Hofman said, while stressing the particular need for internists, urologists and medical technicians in the region.

Upon returning from his most recent trip, Hofman said he saw more people and had even more interaction with patients than before.

“I’m more convinced that our people [at Notre Dame] will want to participate in this worthwhile project,” he said.

Preparations have been made by Streit and the University to serve the needs of any alumni who were inspired by Hofman. One former student has already made a reconnaissance visit – and many more expressed interest, he said.

“If an 85-year old invalid like myself can make two of these reconnaissance trips, certainly healthy young adults not yet out of their sixties imbued with all of the Notre Dame spirit of Christian charity should want to involve themselves in this great work,” Hofman said.

Hofman said the presence of elephantiasis in Haiti is tragic because, at its beginnings, the disease is relatively simple to treat and cure. As it progresses, however, treatment becomes less successful. Proper medical care and preventive knowledge is simply not available for much of the population, and so elephantiasis continues to be an overwhelming health problem in Haiti, he said.