The ranks of Swarthmore’s activist organizations are joined this semester by a new group dedicated to raising awareness of infectious diseases that threaten the lives of people in developing countries.
The new group is Global Health Forum (GHF), founded late last semester after a group of students including current senior Mark Dlugash attended a conference hosted by Americans for Informed Democracy (AID), whose mission is to empower youth to change lives. One of the many issues discussed at the conference was the issue of the high malaria rate among children in Africa, where the disease is the leading cause of death among children under five. “The conference was life-changing,” says Dlugash, and indeed it inspired him and Athena Samaras ’07 to start both an AID chapter and the new organization GHF, which receives support from AID but focuses solely on health issues.
The group’s first campaign is to combat malaria among children in the Acholi Quarter in Uganda, a refugee camp in the capital city of Kampala. Dlugash visited the Acholi Quarter to help Lang scholar Katie Camillus ’08 establish a micro-loan institution. While he was there, he interviewed women and their children about how malaria has affected them. When he asked the women how often their children had had malaria, he knew there was a problem. “I had to rephrase my question; I asked them ‘How many times has your child had malaria this year?’ Then they would say, ‘How can I count that?'” Even if a family can afford treatment for their child, the child often gets it again as soon as he returns home. Because it is recurrent, for the members of the community, malaria may not even spring to mind as one of the biggest problems they are facing: while they worry about finding food and work, malaria is a fact of life.
Malaria may not seem like such a big problem to us in the US, and that’s because it is highly preventable. The mosquitos that carry the disease can be kept at bay during the night (their most active hours) by an insecticide-treated bednet (exactly what it sounds like – a net that completely covers the bed) which costs $10, or an untreated one which costs just $5. Another option is to take a regimen of pills which costs $27. These items are completely unaffordable to families in the Acholi Quarter, but definitely affordable to groups like the GHF, which ultimately hopes to be able supply the community there with one treated bednet per Swarthmore student.
It is precisely because the issue of malaria is so easily addressed with direct action that GHF chose it for its first campaign. While the group is also concerned with raising awareness for other infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, they wanted to start with a problem where a simple action on the part of a student could save lives. Sherri Lee ’10, GHF’s outreach coordinator, rattled off some statistics: in Kenya, where there was a program to provide bednets for children, they reduced the deaths of children under five due to malaria by 44% in the last few years.
The GHF asks a lot of its members, who are a varied group. Lee is considering majoring in biology and got involved with the group because she is interested in healthcare. But everyone has their own reason for joining. Some are pre-med, some were involved in anti-malaria campaigns in high school, others are interested in international humanitarian work or careers in public health. What unites them, she says, is that “everyone is genuine, and wants to make a difference.” And making a difference, in this case, isn’t just empty talk – it’s a continued commitment to being educated and raising awareness. Dlugash attributes a lot of his considerable zeal to the awareness-raising conference he attended, and says that people who come to GHF will be encouraged to attend at least one conference so that they can learn more about health issues and get inspired to become leaders in tackling new problems. Part of group meetings, too, is dedicated to bringing in experts in various topics so that members can learn more. “At Swarthmore,” he says, “we want to empower student leadership in the organization and within the Swarthmore community.” The group’s mission, summed up by secretary Lois Park ’10 in four words, is “Educate, Empower, Lead, Act”.
This attitude drives the group’s larger purpose, which is to encourage Swarthmore students to be educated and to educate others, which ultimately has an even further-reaching effect than simply donating money. For GHF, providing bednets for a specific community is the ideal campaign, because it allows us in the first world to overcome the distance between ourselves and the people we want to help. “We’re breaking it down for people,” says Lee, about GHFs direct-action approach. “We want to tell stories and go beyond a superficial level … These people have full lives, but they also have a problem, and you do what you can to help.” With activism, says Dlugash, “there’s a high barrier to entry … people think there’s nothing they can do, but ten dollars can save a child’s life.”