CUGH 2017: The lessons of global health come home in Fogarty fellow stories, questions, plans

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One fellow went to Chile to track a parasite that spreads disease from dogs to humans . . . Another investigated the social networks that could improve HIV outreach in India, another found links between pollution and heart disease that affect people worldwide, including in the United States . . .

As Fogarty turns 50 in an uncertain political climate, fellows described opportunities to build health and expertise

Dr. Roger Glass, director of the National Institutes of Health Fogarty International Center, has heard from an unusual number of the Center’s research fellowship alumni lately — in part, he told an audience at the 2017 Consortium of Universities for Global Health conference  Friday evening, because of “this unusual situation we’re in.”

“The unusual situation” to which Dr. Glass delicately alluded likely refers to the Center he heads having been singled out for elimination in the Trump Administration’s “America First” fiscal year 2018 budget outline, just when the global scientific partnership initiative planned to celebrate its half-century anniversary.

Dr. Melissa Burroughs Pena of the University of California, San Francisco, describes research to determine links between air pollution and cardiac disease.

“So many people have gone back to the countries where they worked,” Dr. Glass said, “ultimately changing their careers and their lives, and, I think, their satisfaction in medicine.” From a one-year investment, he said, he was hearing stories of “life-long returns.”

He was at the CUGH conference Friday to hear more of those stories in person from recent former fellows who described how following questions had led them to answers beyond the ones they had sought.

Veterinarian Eric Eisenman went to Chile to track a parasite that spreads ecchinocossis, affecting more than a million people worldwide with a disease that is expensive and complicated to treat. In the process of collecting fox feces and dog droppings, he said, he changed seven flat tires on the roadsides of the country’s rough, rambling, rural terrain. He also learned that foxes don’t play a role in spreading the disease to humans. And, he said, he had “by far the most valuable experience I ever had in my life.”

He is back in California now, where he helped found International Veterinary Outreach, an organization that seeks to build sustainable veterinary services, and with them improved public health in places with limited resources, including nearby Covelo, California.

Hod Tamir, a psychologist and research fellow with ICAP at Columbia University went to India to study the impact of stigma on women’s access to HIV services there. He learned the intricacies of social networks that lent women support when their families had failed them. What he saw, he said will help build HIV prevention interventions. He paused, then, as he continued.  “What an honor it was to be part of an experience of all the people working together, trying to make a better world.”

Dr. Lily Gutnick, a surgery resident from the University of Utah, said her ultimate ambition is to build comprehensive cancer care centers in low-income countries, where the tolls of the disease are escalating. But first, she wanted to know how screening for breast cancer could be improved, and lower rates of death from the disease in Malawi. She found that community workers could be trained in four weeks to conduct clinical breast exams, greatly increasing rates of detection. She plans to apply what she learned with Discovering Hands, an organization that trains blind women in breast cancer screening, with a project in India. As the speakers before her had said, one way or another, she called the fellowship “the best professional and personal year of my life.” Not the least of it, she said, in the face of the frequent frustrations of work where needs are critical and resources are limited, was learning from a mentor to ask herself “What is the way forward?”

Dr. Glass, who followed the fellow’s presentations with questions and suggestions for where their research could next lead, had offered his own answer to that question regarding the future of the Fogarty Center. He had been told recently, he said, that some members of Congress had not heard of the Center, or the colleague for whom it was named, or the span of the work that it supported. Still he said, “We’re going to come out on top. We hope with more recognition than before.”

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