Partners in Health

Boston was amazing. I wrote a report for the group that funded my trip, and I realized it would make a decent blog post. And I got to meet Paul Farmer, who’s basically my hero/role model in many ways. I don’t think it quite qualifies as a “hero” because that implies you idolize the individual. Dr. Farmer is a figure worth looking up to because of his extraordinary work ethic, the good he’s been able to accomplish for global health, and the fact that he is an icon for like-minded individuals.

Partners in Health’s 13th Annual Thomas J. White Symposium was attended by approximately 1500 people–students, volunteers, admirers, and donors of all ages–at the Kresge Auditorium on the campus of MIT in Cambridge, MA. Partners in Health (PIH) is a non-profit organization that has grown over the past two decades to include 4000 employees in Boston, Haiti, Russia, Peru, Guatemala, Rwanda, Lesotho, and soon in Malawi, who last year provided health care to over 1 million people, including 1000 on antiretroviral treatment for HIV. PIH has had a significant impact on global health policy because of the personal dedication of its founders and the principles on which it is founded, which were expressed well by the 2000 People’s Health Assembly in Savar, Bangladesh; “The attainment of the highest possible level of health and well-being is a fundamental human right”.

The symposium, designed to summarize the past year’s activities, and to outline the policy and programmatic struggles to come, began with remarks by Ophelia Dahl, Executive Director of Partners in Health, on the last year’s expansion of PIH�s operations into Rwanda. A video was shown that highlighted the adaptation of clinical models developed in Haiti, incorporating HIV and TB treatment with community health workers and housing support, for Rwanda.

The keynote address was given by Dr. Jim Yong Kim, current head of Harvard’s Division of Social Medicine, and co-author of Women, Poverty, and AIDS. About ten years ago, Dr. Kim and Dr. Paul Farmer, cofounders of PIH, demonstrated the possibility of treating patients with HIV and Multi-drug-resistant Tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in resource-poor settings. Their research findings changed World Health Organization policy, which had previously recommended against treatment in impoverished countries. Dr. Kim recently spent three years in Geneva as the director of the World Health Organization’s AIDS program, where he pioneered a campaign to get 3 million poor patients on HIV treatment by 2005. He spoke of the triumphs and pitfalls of working within the WHO bureaucracy, of which he was previously a well-known critic. While lauding the continuing research into new cures, Dr. Kim also introduced a new program at Harvard Medical School in Global Health Effectiveness, helping to improve worldwide access to therapies currently available in high-income countries.

Dr. Paul Farmer, who has become a minor celebrity to students of international health and development after being featured in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, spoke charismatically about the interconnection of social and economic factors with the health of the poor, and about the continued need for an equity plan to prevent and cure treatable diseases worldwide. He also praised donors like Thomas J. White, the millionaire who made PIH’s early work possible, and in whose honor the annual symposium is held.

Other presenters included Lucette Fetire, a Haitian HIV patient and advocate who told her story of how PIH first treated her, then empowered and employed her as a community health worker to help her HIV+ neighbors. Dr. Ludmilla Kashtanova, director of PIH�s Russian programs, talked of treating MDR-TB in Russian prisons, and changing the course of Russian policy to prevent further spread of the disease. Veronica Suarez Ayala and Jason Villarreal, community health workers for PIH in Peru and Boston respectively, shared stories of their patients, sometime succumbing to disease, and sometimes recovering to help others.

Personally, I found the event extremely affirming and encouraging. Meeting many likeminded undergraduate and medical students was uplifting, and being in a large crowd that affirmed a belief I strongly hold�that people should not die of treatable diseases regardless of their country of birth�only helped crystallize my goals.

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