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Forum will focus on global health

Eileen Duffy | Thursday, September 14, 2006

An issue that covers the tiny – the chromosomes of malaria-carrying mosquitoes – to the massive – the two billion people thought to be affected with the tuberculosis virus – will take center stage for seven panelists in the Notre Dame Forum today.

The second annual forum, entitled “The Global Health Crisis: Forging Solutions, Effecting Change,” will be held from 1:15 to 3:15 p.m. in the Joyce Center.

Panelists include Dr. Paul Farmer, the founding director of the international non-profit organization Partners in Health; Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the United Nations Millennium Project and Dr. Miriam Opwonya of the Makerere University Infectious Diseases Institute in Uganda.

Gwen Ifill, moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” will moderate the event.

Even more so than last year’s “Why God? Understanding Religion and Enacting Faith in a Plural World,” which coincided with University President Father John Jenkins’ inauguration, this year’s forum aims to educate students, said Assistant Vice President for News and Information Dennis Brown.

“I think the primary goal in this particular case is to bring to the student body some real depth of knowledge concerning what is a massive problem worldwide,” he said. “It’s a problem that I think most people are aware of on a sort of surface level, but it’s got a little bit of an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ aspect to it.”

Also participating are seniors Michael Dewan and Ailis Tweed-Kent, as well as alumni Keri Oxley, Class of 2004 and Dr. David Gaus, Class of 1984. All of the participants have personal experience with the global health crisis.

Time Magazine named Farmer – who has worked with the poverty- and disease-stricken populations of Haiti, Peru, Russia and Rwanda – “America’s most celebrated doctor for the poor.” He was the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder’s 2003 book “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World.”

Farmer’s organization, Partners in Health, describes its goals on its Web site as “bringing the benefits of modern medical science to those most in need of them and serving as an antidote to despair.”

Opwonya, too, has seen the issue of global health firsthand. At Makerere University, she is the coordinator of clinical trials for anti-retroviral HIV/AIDS therapy. Prior to her position there, she coordinated an HIV/AIDS home-based care program in the city and suburbs of Kampala, Uganda.

“Effecting change” is a familiar concept to Sachs. An advisor to Kofi Annan, he directs the United Nations Millennium Project, an international effort to reduce poverty, disease and hunger by the year 2015.

Father Thomas Streit, director of the University’s Haiti Program and the Center for Global Health in Biology, commended the choice of panelists.

“In academic circles, some of these speakers have achieved rock-star status,” he said. “At other universities, people have to pay to see these speakers. We have not just one, but three.”

Dewan traveled to Uganda through one of the Center for Social Concerns’ International Summer Service Learning Programs (ISSLP), where he was meant to be a primary school teacher. But that plan changed once he got there.

“I ended up spending half my time at an HIV-malaria clinic a few miles away,” he said. “I got a really good picture of the situation of health there.”

A combination of extreme poverty and a lack of health professionals in the area left Ugandans neglected in terms of health care, Dewan said.

“They didn’t have a lot of places to go when they were sick,” he said. “And even if they did, a lot of them were too poor to really receive any care that could have been available to them, like anti-retrovirals for HIV or quinine for malaria. You read about this stuff, but actually witnessing it is pretty powerful.”

Dewan described testing Ugandans’ blood for diseases like HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis and malaria – a disease he himself fell victim to, though he “didn’t want to make a big deal of it.” His bout with malaria only lasted a week and his treatment cost the equivalent of eight U.S. dollars.

“You and I spend the same amount of money on a burger and fries without thinking twice,” he wrote in an essay for the forum’s Web site. “Meanwhile millions of children are dying from this same disease every year simply because they cannot afford the treatment … Pretty messed up, don’t you think?”

While Dewan and Tweed-Kent have a great deal of experience, Dewan said he has no intention of saying “anything life-changing or world-changing” during the forum.

“That’s what people like Dr. Farmer and Dr. Sachs are there for,” he said. “I think the purpose of myself and Ailis being on the panel is to show the [undergraduates in the] audience that as much as anybody, we as young people are responsible for the things that happen in this world.

“It’s not something that’s abstract or separate from us. We are supposed to be the difference-makers for tomorrow.”