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Archive for January, 2011

The Tribal Health Project

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Tribal Health Project

Post by Murali Bashyam

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

-        Henry de Bracton

It was sometime in late 2010 when I received a call from Dr. Maria Del Pilar Corena, founder of World Solutions Against Infectious Diseases (WSAID).  As usual, she was bristling with excitement.  Maria was telling me about a new project idea intended to help tribes around the world with disease prevention.

The project has two main goals:

1.     To study tribes and document their natural medicinal practices, perceptions of disease, and their treatment of Malaria, Dengue, Chagas and Leishmaniasis, and

2.     To use the local tribal health practices and incorporate modern scientific knowledge and practices to develop effective tools to educate tribes about insect transmitted diseases and disease prevention.

The premise of this idea is based on Mr. Alejandro Valencia-Tobon’s work in rural Colombia. He conducted question/answer sessions to gain valuable information from communities affected by the Leishmaniasis disease. Mr. Valencia-Tobon put that knowledge to work by creating audiovisuals that captured the community’s perception of Leishmaniasis, which were then used to help educate them on prevention and treatment of the disease.

Maria’s plan is to use a similar approach to document tribal notions on insect transmitted diseases, incorporate it with modern scientific/biomedical knowledge, and develop tools to help educate tribes threatened by Malaria, Dengue, Leishmaniais and Chagas.

She asked if we would be interested in helping with the educational part of the project.

Since sustainable health solutions is a part of our mission, we partnered with WSAID and PECET, a research organization in Columbia, South America, and submitted this project proposal to the Wellcome Trust.

Why is This Project Important?

Traditional plant medicines often play a key role in drug discovery. Researchers working on drug development are generally not exposed to the tribal knowledge that contributed to their discovery. Tribal knowledge is valuable in identifying specific natural products that lead to disease treatment.

Development, tourism and conflicts have contributed to increased biodiversity losses and tribal extinction.  But the most significant contributors to increased biodiversity losses and tribal extinction are insect-transmitted diseases such as Malaria, Leishmaniasis, Dengue, and Chagas.  If these communities are destroyed, their tribal knowledge will also be lost forever.

The main goal of this project is to help reduce the rate of tribal extinction.

One objective for the achievement of this goal is to preserve valuable tribal knowledge.  This knowledge, in conjunction with modern scientific practices, can then be used to develop effective tools to educate tribes about insect transmitted diseases and disease prevention.  Tools such as audiovisuals and hands-on approaches can be created to illustrate differences between insects, habitats, and transmission cycles.

The regions chosen for this three-year study include: 1) Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, South America (Koguis tribe), 2) Western Ghats, Madurai, India (Paliyan tribe) and 3) Subsaharan Africa, Mali (Dogon tribe). All three regions are classified as high biodiversity endangered ecosystems.

Project Engagement and Goals

Interventions to improve public health are most effective when communities understand, participate in and benefit from the research process. Isolated tribal communities are often not included in traditional research and interventions, and their medicinal knowledge is not disseminated.

In the first phase of this project with the Koguis Tribe in Colombia, our team plans to film interactions with the tribe, documenting their medicinal and tribal practices. These interactions will be used to develop tools necessary to educate them on various aspects of tropical diseases and the insects that cause them in a manner consistent with their practices.

This project will also provide others with information on how modern knowledge on these diseases can be translated into simple tools to educate tribes across the world on disease treatment and prevention. We hope to establish inclusive dialogue with teachers, researchers, scientists, officers and the general public to develop better and more creative educational tools to be used in other phases of the project in Africa and India. One key objective is to educate public and health professionals so they understand how tribes perceive tropical diseases.

The expected project outcomes can be summarized with four words: 1) knowledge, 2) education, (3) prevention, and 4) collaboration.

Knowledge – We expect to develop a greater understanding of tribal perceptions of tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue, chagas and leishmaniasis, and medicinal practices used to prevent/treat them. This knowledge will be disseminated to other health professionals and the general public around the world.

Education We will take the collective knowledge gained through our interactions with tribes and other collaborators, and incorporate it with modern scientific/biomedical knowledge to develop audiovisual tools and other hands-on approaches to educate tribes on the differences between various diseases and the insects that transmit them.

mosquito

Prevention We believe that knowledge and education, when applied together and in a manner consistent with local tribal health practices, will lead to decreased insect disease transmission within tribal communities. This will lead to decreases in sickness and loss of life.

Collaboration Collaboration with health professionals and researchers in various countries, as well as collaboration with tribes and other interested parties, will lead to an exchange of knowledge on tropical diseases in a way that is consistent with tribal health practices. This collaboration will lead to long-term relationships that will promote understanding of health issues affecting tribal communities, and the development of simple educational tools to disseminate modern scientific knowledge.

When Will This Project Start?

The Wellcome Trust is expected to make a decision on this project proposal in March 2011. We will keep you updated on the tribal health project, as well as our partnership with WSAID, throughout the course of the year.