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Unite for Sight


Thursday, May 31, 2007
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“Presently I cannot see”…

Anthony Smith, a Liberian man, sits outdoors at the Buduburam Refugee Camp in Gomoa, Ghana and reflectively explains the painful story of how he lost his eye site. Behind him stands a tree, waving in the wind and perhaps shelter to the chirping birds heard in the background. Beyond the tree rests two red-shingled gazebos, simple and perfectly symmetric. The verdure, the rusty colored shingles, the dimming sky…all images of his past; for now he can only feel and hear his surroundings.

“I was attacked brutally, my family and I, on the 9th. Of the year 1990”…

He describes in detail the atrocities of the civil wars in Liberia from 1989-1996 – how the rebels beat and/or killed anyone affiliated with the government. Working as a registrar for the National Democratic Party before the war, he was a direct target. They beat him, his children, and his community. He was forced to look at the sun and when he looked away to relieve his eyes of the excruciating pain, they would step on his eyes with indefensible rage.

“…Just like that.”

Just like that. On April 14th several medical professionals and students embarked on what many thought was going to be an informative conference on the current state of Global Health. The moment this scene was displayed on the classroom projection screen, however, it was clear that the conference was about so much more. The conference was about saving humanity. This scene is part of Duke University student and filmmaker Sally Ong’s documentary on The Buduburam Refugee Camp for Unite for Sight. Unite for Sight as stated on their website, “is a nonprofit organization that empowers communities worldwide to improve eye health and eliminate preventable blindness.” The Fourth Annual International Health Conference, held by Unite for Sight at The Stanford University School of Medicine, gathered both medical students and professionals alike, to discuss the state of international health in a optimistic, yet realistic manner.

 “80% of Blindness is Preventable. 36 Million Are Needlessly Blind.”

These are the statistics that cover the Unite for Sight homepage. Eighty per cent of blindness is preventable? Who knew? Indeed, the presenters at the conference. Not only are they well aware of this astounding fact, but they are also making great strides to combat this daunting statistic and provide preventive care to underserved global communities. Many of these communities are torn by war, others are without direct access to medical care, and some are suffering from both.

Although a great issue in and of itself, the conference covered far more than the subject of global eye care. In fact, deciding which sessions to attend remained a tricky assignment: Healthcare and HIV/AIDS in Low Resource Settings, Childhood Diseases: Morbidity and Mortality, Public Health in Latin America, Social Entrepreneurship, Microfinance, & Sustainable Development, Technology & Telemedicine: New Innovations in Health Care, The Health of Women and Babies, Community Health and Research  – all informative sessions facilitated concurrently – a few of more than one hundred seminars on global health.

“How do we get to the root cause of the diseases? How do we reach out and limit – restrict the incidents of these diseases? This is community health and economic development.”

Dr. Ian Rawson, CEO and Director of Hopital Albert Schweitzer Haiti, jumps right into his session: “Addressing the Root Causes of Disease in Haiti.” He discloses the imperative yet often overlooked relationship between community health and economic development. Women who are involved in microeconomics are less likely to have HIV because they are more likely to be economically independent and have a greater self-esteem. This is one of his examples at its simplistic, core level; however, it is not as simple as it sounds. He states that in order to tackle the root causes of disease in Haiti, several methods must be used. Beyond providing microeconomic skills and involvement to women rests societal and cultural factors. And in order to address these factors, partnerships must be formed.

Traditional healers, for example, are people who are recognized and trusted in the community; therefore partnerships that involve them are not only ideal, but also essential in reaching a greater demographic. In less than 20 minutes, Dr. Rawson manages to discuss the topics of community health, economic development, medical partnerships, Directly Observed Drug Therapy, community leadership development, environmental renewal…and that is just the first presentation of a four-part session on Healthcare and HIV/AIDS in Low Resource Settings which is undeniably informative and applicable internationally. Where to go next?

“Global health is our health. It’s important for Americans to not only be experts in health, but diplomats…”

What is the responsibility of American medical professionals in the field of global health? Dr. Thomas Novotny, Director of International Programs and Professor in Residence, Epidemiology, & Biostatistics at the UCSF School of Medicine, speaks to the responsibility and opportunity of health providers today. “Who needs global health education? Why do they need it? What do they need to know?” Dr. Novotny opens each section with a different thought-provoking question in his discussion about “Innovations in Global Health Education.” The underlying idea seemingly remains; we are all connected and always will be. International issues have a domestic impact, global health inequities are in strong existence, foreign policy has the ability to fail, new medical challenges continue to surface, and the “global health curriculum” continues to change. These factors alone are enough reason for medical professionals to seize this opportunity and responsibility so that the state of global health may improve on various levels. And yes, the levels are discussed in depth….in less than 20 minutes. It’s amazing how much vital information can be relayed in such a small amount of time.

“Where are the human rights for these kids?”

Dr. Mini Murthy, assistant professor at The New York Medical College School of Public Health, speaks with passion and convincing urgency in her session, “The Human Rights of Children in India.” Children remain the “excluded” and “invisible,” unable to have access to basic health care and human rights – inconceivably exploited and sadly mistreated. Dr. Murthy explains how factors such as poverty, armed conflict, discrimination, trafficking, and displacement contribute to the loss of innocence for so many children in India. And as she ardently insists, this has to be changed…and now. And within 20 minutes, she charges a room full of observers to consistently work towards this change. 

Twenty minutes. Not much time to present on global health. But just enough time to prove that there is a greater issue that requires immediate, increased attention. Perhaps that’s about how long it takes to perform a life-altering eye surgery, or administer malaria medication to a family, or perform essential women’s health exams, or meet a Buduburam volunteer in front of the red-shingled gazebos, below the dimming sky, which he cannot see, to discuss the potential invaluable contributions to him and his community.

“Fortune favors the prepared mind”

Dr. Robert Siegel, Stanford Center for African Studies and Department of Microbiology and Immunology, strategically slips this Louis Pasteur quote into his presentation on “Engaging Students in International Health.” And perhaps this remains the foundation of this year’s Unite for Sight Conference; the idea that if we as medical professionals, students and supporters hope to make a significant impact on the current state of global health, we must purposefully prepare our minds. Wearing a red bowtie and white & grey sneakers with his dress pants and shirt, Dr. Siegel’s attire and quirky persona symbolically displays the notion that we must visibly stand apart in order to sincerely come together. Another step towards saving humanity.

“Unite for Sight is a nonprofit organization that empowers communities worldwide to improve eye health and eliminate preventable blindness. The goal of Unite for Sight is to work with its partner communities and eye clinics to create eye disease-free communities.” For more information on Unite for Sight, to view the Buduburam Refugee Camp documentary video, or to learn more about the presenters at this year’s conference, visit their website here.

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About Anna Otieno

Anna Otieno is a Special Correspondent for Mshale and reports on Faith, Politics, Health, Entertainment, and more. She enjoys various areas of media from print and television to research and analysis. She has a BA in Political Science with a focus on International Relations and an MA in Media Studies, Communication, both from Stanford University. She is also the founder and director of The Akinyi Foundation, an organization that focuses on humanitarian action by tying individual and group volunteers to domestic and international areas of need. Anna strives to disclose the most unique perspectives in life by utilizing the most creative styles. She’s always in search of answers…“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” - e.e. cummings

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