Autumn 2010: Prelude

Walking the Talk

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By Paige P. Parvin 96G

When my friend and colleague Mary Loftus journeyed to Mozambique earlier this year to report on Emory-based efforts to strengthen public health care there, she called me from the plane before taking off from Hartsfield-Jackson. Traveling with an international health organization, she was settling comfortably into her seat, a movie screen in front of her and a glass of wine in her hand. At home, cooking dinner and checking science homework, I felt a pang of envy.

On the ground in Mozambique, though, the setting was literally another world: communities ravaged by malaria and AIDS, poor rural villages, struggling farmers, hungry children, and health clinics with no running water. Mary wrestled for weeks after her return to reconcile her own comfortable life with the images of hardship and want she brought home—richly described in her article on the work of alumna Courtenay Dusenbury 08MPH and the International Association of National Public Health Institutes (IANPHI).

I heard a similar story just this week from Bryan Meltz, a University photographer, who has gone twice to Haiti since the massive January 2010 earthquake to volunteer and to document the devastation there. During a slideshow at Woodruff Library of some of her stunning photographs, Bryan described the relatively plush quarters accessible to aid workers and volunteers in Port-au-Prince, and her corresponding guilt and frustration over the primitive conditions of the tent cities where many Haitian residents are now forced to live.

When confronted by poverty, most of us—particularly in a community like Emory, where there are resources, opportunity, and a generally shared desire to help—experience conflicting emotions, often accompanied by the discomfiting sense that our presence and our pity may be patronizing to those we would like to aid. In August of this year, Kennedy Odede, a Kenyan student at Wesleyan University, published a scorching criticism in the New York Times of “slum tourism,” a practice he said “turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from. People think they’ve really ‘seen’ something—and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family, and my community right where we were before.”

Fair enough, and I don’t know anyone who would set out to be the sort of passive “tourist” Odede describes. But I do know of many at Emory and among our alumni who would rather find ways to contribute—and deal with any accompanying guilt or criticism—than look the other way.

At the dedication of the new Claudia Nance Rollins Building at the Rollins School of Public Health this month, President James Wagner noted that Rollins now receives more applications for its global health programs than any other public health school in the country, and ranks second only to Johns Hopkins in overall applications. These remarkable statistics are a result of the school’s extraordinary growth in scope, resources, global focus, degree offerings, faculty, and space in the thirty-five years since its beginnings; Rollins also celebrates twenty years as a school and fifteen years of Dean James Curran’s leadership this fall.

The school claims nearly five thousand alumni, like Dusenbury, who is working to create new systems for public health care and surveillance in Mozambique and other countries through IANPHI. Since the civil war there ended, tourism has bloomed around the country’s picturesque beaches, but on Dusenbury’s frequent visits she’s more likely to be found in a meeting than a seaside café.

Another Rollins graduate, David Thon 08MPH, also worked with local residents in Africa to improve conditions—but in his home country of Sudan. A “lost boy” who fled his village during civil war more than twenty-five years ago, Thon went on to earn a degree at Rollins and then returned to Sudan with The Carter Center’s Guinea Worm Eradication Program. Before Thon returned to the United States this summer, he welcomed his field replacement, Adam Koon 08MPH, to Sudan. “The day Adam got there, we had to walk six hours, almost all through water,” Thon told Emory Magazine.

Health experts at Rollins and beyond also make up pieces of the giant puzzle representing Emory’s progress in the fight against AIDS. Collaborative efforts across the University are helping to slow the advance of the pandemic, with successes on all fronts—in research labs, pharmaceutical development, vaccine testing clinics, communities in Africa and India, and on American streets. In this issue of Emory Magazine, we feature highlights of the past three decades—including the AIDS Vaccine 2010 conference taking place here at Emory this month.

I would be remiss not to offer my usual disclaimer: in these few pages we can present only a fraction of the thousands of examples of Emory’s impact on global health. But I hope that the observations of storytellers like Mary, Bryan, and another Rollins alum, Pat Adams 08MPH, who writes about his classmate David Thon, might enhance that impact just a little by increasing understanding—not just of the Emory figures but of those they are trying to serve.

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist and author whose reporting on Guinea worm disease is spotlighted in Pat’s story, recently was obliged to defend himself on his blog against barbs that in some ways echo the criticisms of Odede, above. Readers claimed that his reporting too often presents Africans as “victims” and white foreigners as “saviors.” Recalling his series of well-read articles on sex trafficking in which he described buying two teenage prostitutes himself and returning them to their families, Kristof said, “The approach may have offended some people as patronizing, but it sure brought attention to the issue.”

Telling such stories is no pleasure tour, as Kristof can attest, but it can perhaps aid progress. It may help to raise hope. And it is undoubtedly a privilege.

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