Doctors Without Borders/M?decins Sans Fronti?res (MSF) is an international humanitarian organization that works in over 85 countries in the world, tending to the poorest of the poor in places that have been ravaged by war, disease, and environmental disaster. Each year, more than 2,500 volunteer doctors, nurses, other medical professionals, logistics experts, water/sanitation engineers, and administrators joing more than 15,000 locally hired staff in delivering emergency medical care. MSF received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. |
The Access to Essential Medicines EXPO is intended to introduce people to the work of MSF and is currently touring the U.S. and Europe. The tour is also promoting a signature campaign to demand that more research and development funds -- both public and private -- be used to develop drugs and treatments that are desperately needed in non-Western countries. People can sign postcards in person at the EXPO or make their support known online. MSF is hoping to gather at least 1,000,000 signatures.
Visitors to the EXPO had a chance to learn more about MSF's work and the trials and tribulations suffered by the populations they help through an interactive exhibit stored in a trailer truck and parked in Pioneer Courthouse Square. At the start of the exhibit, people would spin a "wheel of misfortune". After the wheel stopped on a color, a guide gave the participant a laminated card that corresponded to the color on the wheel. Each card described in-depth the living conditions in a country and the symptoms of a particular disease common there. Participants were asked to imagine they were living there with that disease, and then go into the truck to find out more. I got "kala azar" (Leishmania donovani) in Uganda.
The truck was divided into three rooms, and participants matched their card by color to displays inside, to learn more about their country and disease.
The stories told in these displays were personal, detailed, and deeply affecting.
The text pulled few punches regarding living conditions, symptoms, and suffering.
A wall of clocks whose tick-tock could be heard clearly throughout the truck offered a stark reminder of the deadly toll taken by untreated, and often preventable, disease around the world.
In the final room, participants sat down with a white-uniformed MSF volunteer who talked to you about your disease. Kala azar is a parasitic disease spread by the bite of the sandfly. The disease begins with small measel-like lesions that spread to the upper trunk, arms, forearms, thighs, legs, abdomen, the neck and the back. Multiple lesions can coalesce to form larger lesions and can lead to the gross enlargement of facial features such as the nose and lips, giving an appearence similar to leprosy. Symptoms include fever, chills, weight loss, fatigue, poor appetite, cough, burning feet, insomnia, abdominal pain, joint pain, anorexia, epistaxis and diarrhoea. Having kala azar makes one more susceptible to other health problems and permanent disfigurement of the face is common after it passes.
The treatment available for kala azar in Uganda is almost as bad as the disease. The injection, which was developed forty years ago, is filled with heavy metals that can strip the insides of the veins and lead to death. A newer, safer injection that was developed is not currently being manufactured by a Western pharmaceutical company because it was not profitable. A reconstituted form of it is available, however, as a treatment for female facial hair. Under pressure from MSF and others, the company, Aventis, might soon begin manufacturing it as a kala azar treatment again.
I was asked by the nurse if I wanted to continue suffering with kala azar or take the possibly deadly injection. I didn't know what to say.
Outside the truck, people were encouraged to sign their names to postcards that MSF will be mailing to pResident Bush and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. The postcards urge the government and pharmaceutical companies to dedicate more money to researching and developing treatments for a variety of "neglected [not common in the "developed" countries] diseases" including malaria, tuberculosis, sleeping sickness, and kala azar, which kill millions every year.
According to Rachel Cohen, one of the MSF organizers, 250 people went through the EXPO in Pioneer Courthouse Square on Thursday, its first day.
The EXPO will continue to tour the country, stopping in Seattle, Missoula, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, and many other East Coast stops, ending in D.C. in March 2003, when the postcards will be delivered.
I highly recommend going through the Access to Essential Medicines Campaign when it comes through your town. Check the schedule to find out when it will near you. If you can't visit the EXPO, sign the MSF petition online.
Next stop: Seattle, Aug. 1-4, Alaskan Way Viaduct on the waterfront