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Program works to combat diseases

Molly Madden | Tuesday, September 15, 2009

You might think 50 cents won’t buy you much today, but on the contrary, 50 cents is enough save a life, in some cases, and a new program at Notre Dame is trying to make this statement a reality.

The Neglected Tropical Diseases initiative is a new program brought to the University by the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington D.C. Sabin is a non-profit organization that is working to cure the 1.4 billion people worldwide who are afflicted with the seven diseases known as the Neglected Tropical Diseases, or NTDs.

These are infections that include hookworm, other intestinal worm infections, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis, and onchocerciasis, as well as the bacterial infection, trachoma, which can cause blindness.

The one-time vaccine for these seven diseases can be covered for a mere 50 cents.

“This new initiative by the Sabin Vaccine Institute is essentially trying to address and eradicate these seven diseases that affect millions of people each year,” freshmen Thomas Emery said, a member of the NTD initiative. “It’s an effort to do something simple because its only 50 cents a person.”

Sabin contacted Notre Dame’s Fr. Thomas Streit, a professor of biology, in August about starting a program at Notre Dame that would be the first university-based organization in the country to address this problem.

“Sabin asked Fr. Streit because he spends half of every year in Haiti which is a place where many of these diseases are prevalent,” freshmen initiative member Mike McCurrie said.

Currently, the steering committee of the initiative is made up of five freshmen, of which Emery and McCurrie are members. Having freshmen leadership was something Sabin asked for.

“They wanted freshmen because this way we’ll have four years to help the initiative grow,” Emery said.

Although the initiative, which currently has some 25 members from all classes at Notre Dame, is new, its goals are far-reaching.

“Originally, Sabin wanted to have all the diseases eradicated by 2020,” freshman committee member Eileen Lynch said. “However, President Obama recently said that he would like to see all these people vaccinated by 2016.”

This goal may seem lofty, but the steering committee members said they are confident they can achieve it.

“1.4 billion people is a really big number, but if you get enough people involved it really can happen,” McCurrie said.

Lynch agreed that the goal is not as hard as it looks on paper.

“It’s scary but at the same time you only need 50 cents,” she said. “It is a completely doable thing to eradicate all these diseases; there are so many people who can easily spare 50 cents or even $50. We just need to get the awareness out there.”

In order to raise awareness, the initiative members have some events planned in the coming months to try and get the whole Notre Dame community involved.

“No event or fundraiser is too small for us right now,” freshman committee member Lesley Sullivan said. “We have some ideas right now for campus-wide T-shirts and are planning local and hall events. We have no boundaries; we can reach out to the Notre Dame community and beyond.”

Reaching beyond the Notre Dame community is exactly what the Sabin Institute wants the group to do. The institute wants the NTD initiative to become a household name within the next few years.

“Sabin has set the bar high,” McCurrie said. “They basically want us to be as big as the Nothing But Nets organization. It’s a pretty big goal but hopefully we can be something that will eventually make a difference.”

The institute has also requested the group on Notre Dame’s campus be a template other universities can follow to set up their own NTD initiative.

“We want to create an infrastructure … that colleges across the country can emulate,” Emery said. “We want this group to be done in a way that other campuses can do it as well.”

While the students are excited about the future of the initiative, they are also thankful that Sabin chose Notre Dame to pilot the project.

“Notre Dame is a great place, quite possibly the best place, to start something like this,” Sullivan said. “A huge part of Notre Dame’s mission is serving God and humanity, which is why I think Notre Dame was chosen for this huge undertaking. This initiative is really going to take off and we couldn’t be more excited about it.”