Global Health Blog

  1. Working at the Mecca of Global Health

    August 3, 2015 by Guest Bloggers

    Post by guest blogger Rutvij Merchant

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    Rutvij Merchant in front of the WHO in Geneva, Austria.

    Rutvij Merchant, a political science major and economics and global health studies minor, is spending his summer in Geneva, Austria doing an internship at the WHO Ebola Response Data Laboratory. Rutvij writes about his first 5 weeks on the job at the WHO, which he calls a “dream opportunity.”

    My first few steps into the atrium of the WHO headquarters building in Geneva were surreal. Portraits of previous Director-Generals hang from the walls; exotic gifts donated by member states are strategically placed in the reception and posters of the various campaigns that the WHO is spearheading catch your attention. For a global health and international development nerd like myself, an internship with the WHO is the dream; I feel incredibly grateful to simply be here when I walk in through the front doors each day. I believed that the internship would not only be a great opportunity to learn new skills but that it would also act as a defining experience that would provide clarity on the professional paths that I would take after college.

    Five weeks into my internship, I can safely say that the work has been challenging and moreover, I have gained some extremely valuable insight into both my own professional goals and how an apex organization like the WHO functions. My internship is with the ebola response laboratory database team, and the responsibilities include loading, cleaning and analyzing the data sent by the labs that are testing patients in West Africa. In the initial couple of weeks, the learning curve was very steep as the central database consists of hundreds of thousands of records and my Excel and STATA skills definitely needed to be at a higher level than they were. Yet, with plenty of help from my colleagues and a natural tendency to ask a lot of questions, I feel that I am now able to contribute to all aspects of the team’s work. The primary deliverable is a weekly PowerPoint presentation that displays the key insights held in the previous five weeks of data and this is disseminated to the Health Ministries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone as well as the top brass at the WHO. The idea is to ensure that high-level strategy regarding outbreak control is based on real-time data and is as evidence based as possible.

    Ebola response control room

    The ebola response control room at the WHO.

    The focus at present is to get ebola cases down to zero in Sierra Leone and Guinea and keep them there, as well as build capacity in the local health systems to tackle other diseases such as malaria that also have similar symptoms to ebola. My favorite part of the day is sitting in on the senior leadership meetings, which are convened in the ebola response control room. Issues relating to policy, vaccine development, communications, HR and logistics are covered and it’s fascinating to see how many stakeholders are involved in the response and how difficult it can be to co-ordinate and align priorities as an apex organization. The successful study investigating a new ebola vaccine that was recently published in the Lancet was WHO sponsored and it was amazing to hear firsthand the report of the primary coordinator of the trial. It gave me an understanding of the life cycle of vaccine development and testing as well as an insight into how a safe, efficacious vaccine is an immediate game changer for outbreak control.

    Over and above my direct work, the internship is a great opportunity to network with health professionals and other interns from various departments at the organization. There are some incredibly accomplished and driven people within the UN system and the networking opportunities can really help you understand the various facets of public health and narrow your interests within the field. That is definitely my primary goal for the second half of the internship. Further, Geneva is also incredibly beautiful in the summer and with the heat wave that swept Europe in July now having receded, I intend to make use of the good weather to hike and travel on weekends to fully explore the surrounding area.

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  2. Northwestern Undergrads win Illinois Health Matters Young Leader Award

    July 22, 2015 by Lajja Patel

    Two Northwestern University Weinberg students Brittany Zelch (Class of 2015) and Emery Weinstein (Class of 2016) recently won the Illinois Health Matters Young Leader Award. Illinois Health Matters is an organization that provides Illinois-specific updates about healthcare reform, aiming to lower disparities in health care across populations by providing information on access to health care and in-depth consumer guides to health coverage. The organization runs a blog that makes federal and state regulations on health care more accessible to the public, showcasing helpful entries on topics like the costs, benefits and savings of various health care plans.

    Zelch and Weinstein submitted an entry to the blog titled “The Missing Link: Putting Health into Your Hands,” in which they addressed the health reforms brought about by the passage of the Affordable Care Act. In their post, Zelch and Weinstein introduce the HIRCULES Health Hub initiative, which was first conceived by Northwestern University Professor Michael Diamond and co-founded by Zelch and Weinstein. Since the Affordable Care Act promotes preventive care, HIRCULES aims to increase health literacy and community awareness of preventive measures in our health care system. In order to lower costs and improve health outcomes, the initiative hopes to empower Evanston and Skokie residents to take control of their health via library health desks and a virtual database that provides health-related resources in the community.

    Zelch and Weinstein’s entry was selected to be run on the Illinois Health Matters blog and they won the organization’s Young Leader Award. During her time at Northwestern, Zelch majored in biology and minored in global health studies. She also served as co-president of the Northwestern GlobeMed chapter. Weinstein is passionate about comparative health care systems and is currently studying health policy and economics, a major she created, and minoring in global health studies. Both students remain actively involved in the HIRCULES Health Hub and its efforts at improving health outcomes in the Evanston and Skokie communities.

    Zelch & Weinstein’s full blog post can be found at: http://illinoishealthmatters.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-missing-link-putting-health-into.html

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  3. Illness Narratives in Anthropology

    June 20, 2015 by Odette Zero

    She had talked to her the day before, and she had seemed so healthy. She was only slightly past her due-date, and now she was dead. The baby too. How could this have happened? It might have been that guy down the road- people say that he practices black magic.

    This is an adaptation from an illness narrative of an indigenous woman in Peru collected by a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology. I have never met this woman, but as a research assistant I have listened and translated her story. Through my expensive earphones in the Starbucks on Sherman Avenue, I am transported to a world of mysterious illnesses, witchcraft and health disparities, along with a fascinating culture on the brink of acculturation to westernization. In this adaptation, the woman is explaining that she feels the major health concern in her community is maternal mortality. Her friend died during childbirth, and no one knows why. Without a biomedical understanding of what happened, this woman turns to another explanatory model for the illness: witchcraft. Witches and black magic become the answer to the unexplainable, and these types of explanations can be harmful when they foster a lack of community trust, as well as divert attention from the real public health issues that this community faces.

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    An illness narrative takes a health condition outside of purely medical environments and places it into a more relevant sociocultural everyday context. I have learned in my global health courses that illnesses do not happen in a vacuum. They are never just caused by a mutation, bacteria, virus or accident. Take AIDS, for instance. While AIDS is caused by human immunodeficiency virus and can be treated with antiretroviral therapy, it is also caused by poverty: a lack of transportation and money to visit a clinic, lack of education, poor living conditions, and other social determinants of health. Therefore, a purely biomedical understanding of any illness will not lead to sustainable change, as biomedicine can only treat the symptoms and not causes of illness.

    Arthur Kleinman, a famous medical anthropologist, has proposed that the act of sharing illness experiences can be therapeutic and cathartic for the tellers as well as for those listening who also suffer from the same illness. For me, at the heart of the field of Anthropology is a desire to give a voice to the voiceless and show how structural systems have an impact on the individual level. Illness narratives have the power to portray this.

    In The Illness Narratives, Arthur Kleinman writes, “illness has meaning; and to understand how it obtains meaning is to understand something fundamental about illness, about care, and perhaps about life generally.” As in all fields of anthropology, medical anthropology collects a piece of the human experience so that it is not lost to the oblivion of human memory. In regards to my personal memory, I plan to keep these past and future stories in mind as I continue in my global health career.

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  4. Northwestern’s Response to the Crisis in Nepal

    June 3, 2015 by Abhinav Veerina

    Source: NU Stands with Nepal Facebook PageOn April 25th, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, about 50km northwest of Kathmandu. Two weeks later, Nepal was struck again with a magnitude 7.3 earthquake. Over 8,000 have died and thousands more have been injured. Nepal’s infrastructure, cultural centers and spirit have been devastated. I am heartbroken.

    Last summer, I spent five weeks in Kathmandu conducting research. The friends I had made are all safe. Nonetheless, I grieve for the warm, beautiful Nepali people seeing their nation in shambles. Not only has it killed, injured and displaced countless people; it has leveled ancient cultural landmarks and monuments. The New York Times posted a unique interactive feature comparing historic sites before and after the quake, revealing the haunting consequences of this disaster. Kathmandu Durbar square, one of the historic sites in the feature, has been reduced to rubble. It was one of my favorite places I had visited during my time there. I remember strolling into the square on a gray afternoon, admiring the intricacies of the former palace, showcasing a uniquely Nepali architecture style. I marveled at how ancient the structures were, and I mourn that it cannot give others the same wonder anymore.

    My homestay brother and dear friend from Kathmandu, Maaz Ashraf, offered to share his experience. He is studying in the United Kingdom at the moment and said that, “the whole situation kind of made me feel a bit helpless…yes, I donated but was it really going to the right place? I don’t know”. He explained to me how his perception of the disaster hinged on the exaggerated tales spread throughout social media and how that kept surging his concern for family and friends.

    His thoughts as a Nepali resonate with my own troubles regarding the disaster. In the days following the quake, I noticed a surge of news and social media coverage and sympathy. However, even a week later media coverage has moved on and with it support for humanitarian aid. Why have headlines and social media coverage changed just days later, particularly here in the USA? What is the best way to help?

    These questions troubling me funnel into Northwestern’s response to this disaster – what is being done on campus to assist humanitarian efforts? Shortly following the quake, President Morton Schapiro sent an email urging the Northwestern community to “extend [their] sympathy” and provided information about how to best “support the international relief efforts”. In addition, a student organization, NU Stands with Nepal materialized, in an effort to “mobilize NU students to support the Nepal earthquake relief efforts” because of the belief that everyone has “personal ties to everyone affected by this disaster through our shared humanity”. Their model of aid is based on an organized and methodical three-step response: raising money to donate to GlobalGiving (a non-profit that connects donors with grassroots projects), telling human stories and sharing their efforts. Another student organization, Alpha Iota Omicron, Northwestern’s South Asian Interest Fraternity held a fundraiser and in addition, was offering the opportunity for the Northwestern community to “write letters of encouragement for children in Nepali orphanages”. TEDxNorthwesternU decided to donate 50% of the ticket proceeds from their conference on May 9th to disaster relief in Nepal.

    To add to all these efforts, various departments in the humanities came together to present “Humanities for Nepal” on May 28th, an event that brought to light cultural elements of Nepal while providing a medium for donation. It included presentations from Professor Sarah Jacoby, Northwestern’s resident ‘buddhologist’, Rob Linrothe, professor of art history, and Kritish Rajbhandari, a graduate student in the comparative literature studies department.

    I was concerned about the response to the disaster in the news and social media, however, I am thankful that the Northwestern community is assisting the disaster in the way that they are. I believe that the humanitarian efforts on campus have made informed and well-researched decisions. They are supported by nationally respected global health organizations like GlobeMed, and funds raised will go to non-profits, such as GlobalGiving. Furthermore, many on-campus efforts are providing alternative options to help besides monetary support. While Northwestern is certainly playing its part in extending to the global community and assisting Nepal in its time of need, we must remember that the implications of this disaster will endure for years and Northwestern’s engagement and support must also continue.

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  5. Rebecca Seligman closes Faculty & Fellows Colloquium with talk on cross-cultural mental health

    May 31, 2015 by Arianna Yanes

    To close the Buffett Institute Faculty & Fellows Colloquium, Rebecca Seligman spoke to a room crowded with professors, students, and Northwestern community members about cross-cultural mental health. More specifically, her talk used the examination of dissociation to illustrate larger issues in studying mental health across cultures. Dissociation is triggered by highly stressful experiences that are injurious to self and allows people to protect themselves from extreme emotion. In a dissociative state, an individual lacks volitional control over actions and often will not remember the events that take place.

    The first case study presented by Seligman was Mrs. T, a 28-year-old Sikh woman living in Montreal. She was referred for psychiatric assessment because of distress she was experiencing and dissociative episodes in which she would not recognize her husband and could not care for her young child. The second case was Jalita, a Brazilian woman living in impoverished conditions under high stress. She visited a psychiatrist and also had been going into trances like Mrs. T.

    Both women occupied socially and politically marginal situations and suffered from depressed affect and anxiety. Both experienced shaking, rigidity, chills, dizziness and orientation. Though the psychiatric symptoms of these two women seem very similar, the differences between their cultures largely dictated the course of their treatments.

    In the case of Jalita, in Salvador, Brazil, the culture contained a spirit possession religion in which the spirits displace consciousness and occupy the bodies of individuals. Jalita’s symptoms indicated the need for her to be initiated into the religion. She was able to find meaning in her symptoms and classify them as the work of powerful spiritual others, pointing the psychiatric causes away from internal reasons. Her symptoms, which would typically be seen as distressing and disordered, became functional in her social context.

    Mrs. T, however, did not express her distress in a culture that made sense of such symptoms with religious or spiritual explanations. Rather, hers was a case of textbook pathological dissociation and she was not empowered in the same way Jalita was. Her dissociation violated ideas and norms of the culture in which she lived, and as such, was rendered dysfunctional.

    Through the investigation of these two cases, larger themes in cross-cultural mental health were illuminated. The most salient takeaway was that pathology is relative and the classification of disorders depends largely on context. Expression of distress is loaded with cultural and social meaning, which can provide valued social roles for individuals like Jalita or leave those like Mrs. T disenfranchised. After Seligman’s talk, it became clear that the study of mental health on a global scale requires a critical understanding of the meaning created by psychological symptoms and the healing or harming powers this meaning may have.

     

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