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Archive for the ‘Global Health’ Category

Climate Change, Microfinance and Climbing Out of Poverty in Bangladesh

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

By Nick Metheny

Flooding-Bangladesh_Climate-ChangeWater, Water Everywhere

Deep in the mangrove forests of southern Bangladesh, a perfect storm of climate-related factors is threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. This thumbprint of a country is squeezed between the rapidly melting Himalayan glaciers and the rising water levels of the Bay of Bengal. Throw in more frequent and intense monsoons and land that was already below sea level, and suddenly there is way, way too much water.

The southern part of the country is so inundated with brackish, grey mud that many families are literally up to their knees in it. I had the opportunity to visit this area of the country last spring, and let me tell you, it looks like another planet. Huts that used to overlook paddies of rice now sit half sunk in the goop. Fishermen who once pulled in enormous catches from the Ganges river delta now sit in muddy water; their nets empty save for some salt water krill. Bangladesh is already one of the world’s poorest countries, and climate change is only making it worse.

The Great Migration

Families are so desperate that they regularly take their chances against the tigers roaming the mangrove forests to slip into India for work. Or, they may try their luck joining the legions of rickshaw drivers and unskilled laborers in Dhaka, the squalid, overcrowded capital. The World Bank predicts that crop yields will fall by more than 30 percent by 2050, rendering food security perilous for the vast majority of Bangladeshis. What’s more, fifteen million of them will be displaced by climate change. That’s like evacuating every citizen from the cities of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago- combined.

Fighting (or Pinching) Back

While the larger global community is squabbling about what to do about climate change- or if it even truly exists- families are losing the only livelihood they’ve had for generations. Luckily, there are organizations that are fighting for them. BRAC, based in Bangladesh, is one of the world’s largest development organizations. It provides microfinance funds for people to repurpose their now water-laden land. With small loans or grants, former rice farmers can buy crab baskets, thereby turning once wasted land back into something with which they can support themselves. These cash-crop crustaceans can grow to almost 4kg a piece and fetch up to $5 at the local market. The program has become so successful that farmers say they would want to keep crab farming even if their land becomes suitable for rice again. Luckily (and unluckily) for them, this is unlikely to happen any time soon.

More than anything, these programs show the resilience of the human spirit when faced with seemingly insurmountable hardships. The loss of land, livelihood, and- at times- life from climate change is common in southern Bangladesh. However, programs like BRAC’s allow people to pull themselves out of poverty and joblessness and produce income for themselves, thereby removing the ‘relief mentality’. This mindset, where people become accustomed to handouts because of their dire straits, prolongs the amount of time people spend in poverty and reduces their chances of escaping it. Critics say that the crab farming initiative and others like it do nothing to treat the larger causes of climate change. However, they do make an almost immediate difference in the lives of thousands of families, and in the short term at least, that is what really matters.


Nick Metheny graduated in 2011 with an MPH in Global Health from The George Washington University. He loves to read, run, and travel, and is especially passionate about Global Health and International Development.  He resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Saving Babies “One Foot at a Time”

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

SaveBabiesBy Ashley Poling

Henry David Thoreau once said, “Every child begins the world again.”  While certainly a concise quote, it got me thinking about the meaning behind Thoreau’s words.  Perhaps, one of the most amazing things about children is their propensity for optimism—their enthusiasm and wonder over the small things in life, as well as their ability to capture the kindness of the human spirit through simple words or gestures.  But what if a child never had the opportunity to experience any of this?  Or what if the quality of this experience was diminished? Newborn screening is an issue that I knew little about a few weeks ago, and it is one that greatly affects a child’s quality of life.  After having the privilege of speaking with Jill Levy-Fisch, President of Save Babies Through Screening Foundation, I realized how important this issue is to the health of the more than four million babies born in the United States each year.  Save Babies is the only national nonprofit organization that focuses solely on advocacy for newborn screening.  Because Friends Unite is dedicated to the improvement of education and health around the world, we are incredibly interested in the work that Save Babies champions.

By a simple prick of a baby’s heel within two days after his or her birth, a wealth of information can be discovered which can, quite literally, alter the course of that baby’s life.  After the blood from the newborn screen is analyzed, it is determined whether or not that baby has the potential to develop a number of different harmful conditions, such as metabolic disorders, hormonal issues, blood disorders, etc.  If one of these conditions is detected through the newborn screen, it should be followed by additional tests, which will determine affirmatively whether or not a baby has a particular condition.  If this is the case, parents have the opportunity to work with health professionals to treat the condition.  With some of the disorders detected, it is even possible to regulate a child’s diet carefully as he or she develops in order to treat the condition preventatively.

After watching a very compelling Save Babies video through the nonprofit’s website, one story about a little girl named Cassidy truly tugged at my heartstrings.  Cassidy was diagnosed with glutaric acidemia, type 1, or GA-1, at the age of 17-months.  At the time of Cassidy’s birth, the test for this condition was not yet a part of newborn screening in Cassidy’s state, which ultimately hid her illness from her parents until she was over a year old.  Because Cassidy’s parents did not know that their daughter had this condition at birth, they did not realize that Cassidy needed to be on a low protein diet.  It took toxins building up in Cassidy’s body from a protein overload, and an ultimate complete collapse of her bodily system, in order for her to finally be diagnosed with GA-1.  Unfortunately, the brain damage caused by Cassidy’s system collapse was irreparable, leaving her unable to walk or talk at the mere age of 17-months.  What a difference it would have made to Cassidy’s life had this test for GA-1 been available in her state when she was born—her whole life could have turned out differently had there only been the capacity in her state to find out at an earlier time whether or not she was carrying this rare disease.

While all fifty states now require at least some form of newborn screening, there are degrees of variation in terms of the number of conditions that are screened in each individual state.  While some states screen for 50+ conditions, others screen for 40-49, while still others only screen for 39 and under.  In those states that do not test for 50+ conditions, it is still possible for parents to pay for any additional tests that they would like performed. One of Save Babies’ missions is to promote consistency among all of the states in newborn screening so that newborns are not only screened comprehensively, but so all residents of the fifty states have equal access to newborn screening tests.  Education is another key component of Save Babies’ mission, and in addition to increasing awareness of disorders that can be discovered through newborn screening and encouraging communication between newborn screening advocacy groups, this organization also promotes the education of parents and healthcare professionals about these conditions.

I was fascinated when Jill told me that Save Babies is also reaching out to people in other countries who do not have access to newborn screening.  Save Babies sends out kits to perform these blood tests–free of charge–when contacted by parents who need their help to effectively screen their newborn.  Jill relayed that Save Babies also helps to assure that these parents have a place to send these completed newborn tests so that they can be analyzed properly for any potential conditions that may appear.  Save Babies is also working to translate the compelling video I mentioned earlier into a host of other languages—it is currently available in English, Spanish, and traditional and simplified Mandarin.  Save Babies has started a project called “1 Billion Happy Baby Stories Mosaic,” where people can share any positive experiences they have had involving newborn screening, or with babies in general.  These stories will be posted on through Save Babies at a cost of $1 per story.  These donations will help support the foundation’s continuation of their admirable and essential work towards helping babies lead healthier lives worldwide by helping to start screening programs in other countries.

Every child does begin the world again, and each child has the potential to make some remarkable differences in humankind.  Doesn’t every child deserve a healthy start?  I know that Save Babies is truly making a difference in giving children the chance they need to lead happy, healthy lives, and I know they are doing so “one foot at a time.”

If you would like to find out more about newborn screening in your state, please visit Save Babies Through Screening Foundation’s website.

The Impact of Introductions

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

By Ashley Poling

PT_Introductions Picture_Group of Professionals.jpg

My name is Ashley Poling, and I am a third-year law student at Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, North Carolina.  After studying public international, humanitarian, and human rights law in Geneva, Switzerland and Strasbourg, France during the summer of 2011, I realized how much I wanted to pursue international law as a career.  I am very interested in working with nonprofit organizations that focus on advocacy issues that directly help people in need around the world.

When Murali Bashyam, President of Friends Unite, reached out to me this past spring to work on this new human rights and advocacy section, I was excited to get involved with such a wonderful organization.  How did Murali know I would be interested in this kind of work, you might ask?  When I tell you the connections that brought us to this point, you will be able to see just how truly amazing a simple introduction can be.

My mother, Lindy Poling, a retired teacher of 35-years, taught Murali as a high school student in the 1980s; but this re-connection was only made after Murali met my father, Barclay Poling, nearly 20 years later. Murali and my Dad met through their volunteer work for Southern Sudan Fellowship, a nonprofit organization in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Knowing that I had some interest in international law, my Dad suggested that Murali might be a good person for me to meet.  After meeting for coffee and expressing my growing interest in human rights law, I was intrigued by Murali’s career as both an Immigration lawyer and as the founder of a nonprofit organization.  When Murali contacted me this past spring in regards to getting involved with Friends Unite, we both concluded that I might be able to help with developing this new section for the organization.

After beginning work on this new human rights and advocacy blogging section for Friends Unite, the connections only continued to grow.  I had the privilege of brainstorming with Murali and Pam Prather, Vice-President of Friends Unite, in early June regarding this blogging section.  My first blog, which explores the issue of newborn screening, ultimately resulted from a connection through Maria Corena-McLeod of the nonprofit WSAID (World Solutions Against Infectious Diseases), a nonprofit partner of Friends Unite.  After Murali put me in touch with Maria, she was kind enough to connect me with Jill Levy-Fisch, President of Save Babies Through Screening Foundation, which inspired my first blog for Friends Unite.

It is truly amazing when you think how these little connections ultimately culminated in a project that I believe will truly make a difference in the world of advocacy.  If we can expose people to issues that they might never have known about before visiting the Friends Unite website through this blog, we are that much closer to inspiring action that will ultimately result in positive change.  I am thrilled to be working on such a project, and I strongly believe that everyone comes into your life for a reason.  I will look forward to increasing the wonderful connections of Friends Unite through this incredible opportunity, and I thank you for taking the time to read.

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.


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.

Kibera Kids Teach Us A Lesson On Happiness

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Guest Post by: Rachel Prather (daughter, Pam Prather, Vice President of Friends Unite)


When I stepped out of the car, the first thing I noticed was the smell.  We had driven through streets that were mostly unpaved and past homes and shops that were made of wood with tin roofs.  I noticed all of these things on the way to Kibera, Kenya, Africa, but the first thing that struck me when I stepped out of the car was the smell.

I thought to myself, “How can these people live here?”  That question lingered for the rest of the morning.

We walked through the streets of the slum, on our way to a new health clinic supported by Carolina for Kibera.  I was wearing a skirt, as we were advised that it would be culturally insensitive for the women to wear pants or shorts.  I was also wearing flip-flops. Kibera6

We were not prepared for what awaited us on the fifteen minute walk to the clinic. I held my skirt up and paid attention to each step as I walked over the visible waste that was part of our path. I watched in shock as I saw residents dumping waste from buckets into the crowded street/sewage system.  I had never seen anything like this.

Some people ignored us, some people greeted us, some shook our hands, others just stared.  It was as if we were walking down a street back home, but it was also very different at the same time.  We were there to observe, to learn and absorb the current state there.

As soon as the kids spotted us, they shouted loudly and often – “How are you?  How are you?”  If we answered them, “I am fine!” they would laugh; delighted to hear English spoken from a native English-speaker.

It was the children who changed the course of my morning.  They were happy, and smiling.  It was hard for me to believe that children in this type of squalor would be able to smile.  And yet, here they were, as polite as can be, greeting strangers into their neighborhood.

The children in the slums were all smiles.  But, how?  Perhaps, because they are alive, most of them probably have parents, they probably have a place to live, and they just enough food to survive.

It could also be because they don’t know any better. We could attribute their happiness to the innocence of the child’s mind. They are not yet aware of the “reality” in Kibera.

What is that reality?

Although 1.5 million people live in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, the largest slum in Africa, Kenya’s government does not acknowledge its existence. The government contends that the massive population is illegally squatting on government land, and thus refuses to provide infrastructure: schools, hospitals, or sanitation. Women are left especially devastated in Kibera as men control existing scarce resources. In Kenya, 33% of women trade sex to survive by 16; in Kibera, 66% of girls trade sex for food as early as 6. Women in Kibera contract HIV at a rate 5 times their male counterparts: Kibera has one of the world’s highest HIV rates. Only 8% of women ever attend school. 1 of 5 children do not live to see a 5th birthday. 7 of 10 women will experience violence. No statistic ultimately captures the severity of Kibera’s human crisis.

There are many members of my generation and younger that take many things for granted.  When their iPod breaks, they get very upset.  It could possibly mean the end of the world – until they get a new one. Maybe, just maybe, if they spent a day with happy children, children who have less “stuff” but just as many things to be happy about, they would get a little tug on their heartstrings.  Maybe it would put things into perspective. Maybe.

I can’t say that my life has turned upside down after visiting the slums of Kibera.  However, I can say that my life has changed in many seemingly insignificant ways.

This month, I start my first year as a high school teacher, and I have already written lesson plans that revolve around my experience in Kibera.

I am grateful that my mom, Pam Prather, and her friend, Murali Bashyam, let us tag along on their trip to Kibera, Kenya.  I have told others of my experience, in the hopes that they will be inspired to visit.  I have started looking at children differently – where does consumerism begin and creativity end?  The most important end I hope to achieve is the education of my students; education about other cultures and other people.

That is something that we all need to be aware of.

WSAID and the Leishmaniasis Project

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

By Murali Bashyam

We like to bring people and organizations together to help achieve common goals.  So when Deborah Loercher, President of Anoroc Agency, told me that I need to speak with Maria Corena-McLeod, a Director with the World Solutions Against Infectious Diseases (WSAID), I immediately jumped at the opportunity to learn more about Maria and her work with WSAID.

WSAID is the first non-profit organization dedicated to finding and implementing integrated, self-sustainable solutions to infectious disease control in affected communities. Their mission is to create strategies to provide education, research support and technical assistance to improve human health and decrease disease transmission and its causes worldwide.  Since one important mission of Friends Unite is creating sustainable health programs, I thought a strong nexus might exist between our two organizations.

During our conversation, Maria told me about the interesting and creative ways WSAID was working to combat infectious diseases in communities around the world.  I was also impressed by the passion Maria had for her work with WSAID, and the aggressive approach she took in partnering with others to advance the mission of WSAID.  We  agreed that since both our organizations are based on teamwork and share a common mission, we should find opportunities to work together.

A few days later, Maria called me about partnering on a project to educate communities in Haiti and Africa on the Leishmaniasis disease.  Leishmaniasis is transmitted by infected sand flies and causes severe skin sores in humans.  In its most extreme form, called Visceral Leishmaniasis, it can spread to vital organs and cause death if it is not treated properly.  Although there is no vaccine to combat Leishmaniasis, the best way to prevent it is to treat the infection before it spreads.

WSAID’s novel plan is to use soil samples collected near animal enclosures in proximity with human dwellings to develop a low-cost method for identifying Leishmania parasites and sand fly vectors.  Once the  Leishmaniasis ‘hot spots’ are identified, we can educate these communities and local Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) on the Leishmaniasis disease, how to identify it, and how to treat it.

We will be submitting this proposal to the Gates Foundation for Phase 1 funding this week.   If approved by the foundation, WSAID, Friends Unite, and others will implement this plan to help prevent the spread of the Leishmaniasis disease.  In the meantime, we urge you to read this informative web site created by Alejandro Tobon, a young Scientist from Columbia who has developed creative ways to educate the public on the Leishmaniasis disease.