Fighting Diseases of Poverty: One Dirt Cup at a Time
By Emily Conron '13
As I prepared for my freshman year at Notre Dame, I flipped through the course catalog hoping to find the perfect “science for non-science majors” class. I had a choice of Genetics, Astronomy, or Common Human Diseases. Genetics looked way too hard, and I had never understood the thrill of stargazing, so Common Human Diseases it was.
Little did I know that this seemingly minor decision would have such an impact on my worldview and future plans. But that’s the beauty of a Notre Dame education. The breadth of required courses allows students to dabble in subjects they didn’t even know existed and to develop passions for issues they might have written off. This trajectory of discovery certainly happened to me: I entered college intent on majoring in history and attending law school and left with degrees in psychology and theology and a job at the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases.
In Common Human Diseases, taught by professor Fr. Tom Streit, I expected to cover cancer and heart disease. I did not expect to learn about diseases I had never heard of in the media or in high school science classes: neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). More than a billion people worldwide suffer from one or more of the seven most common NTDs – parasitic and bacterial infections contracted through insect bites or dirty water or unhygienic living conditions – and endure stigmatization, pain and chronic unemployment as a result.
As our class delved into NTDs, I felt compelled to take action. After all, the treatment and prevention of these diseases is simple and affordable: It costs just 50 cents to treat and protect one person against the seven most common NTDs for a whole year with safe, easily administered medicines.
To raise the profile of these diseases on campus, I started a student group, ND Fighting NTDs. We began by selling “Dirt Cup” desserts to raise money to combat soil-transmitted helminthes, which impact 500 million children worldwide. We went on to plan dozens more events, from trips to Chicago to meet with pharmaceutical industry leaders to a barefoot Zumba class celebrating TOMS’ Day Without Shoes. All told, the club has raised over $10,000 for the Global Network and the Notre Dame Haiti Program, which, under Fr. Tom’s guidance, has significantly contributed to Haiti’s efforts to eliminate lymphatic filariasis (LF), a devastating condition that causes painful, debilitating and disfiguring swelling of one or more limbs.
My interest in NTDs took me all the way to Lèogâne, Haiti where I conducted research on the impact of spirituality on the mental health of LF patients. I spoke with so many people grounded by their religious faith who still believed their situations would improve, despite all of the suffering they were experiencing because of their disease. “I pray whenever people make fun [of my swollen leg], and put everything in God’s hands,” one individual explained. Another woman shared, “The most important thing I do to cope with my LF is believing that God will keep all his promises.”
As people of faith, we believe that God has promised us a better world, one where no one suffers from loneliness or poverty or preventable disease. We also believe that we have a crucial role to play in the realization of this promise. There is a Creole proverb that summarizes this truth succinctly: Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe – God gives, but does not share. We have all of the necessary resources to bring about a world free from unnecessary suffering, so we just need to share the blessings we have –modern medicine, the technology to purify water, shoes to protect children from soil-transmitted diseases – with one another.
At my graduation, Cardinal Dolan enjoined my class to “tell the world our secret,” to share the truth of Notre Dame with the world. I think the secret I want to share – the one I learned at Notre Dame – is that no one is too small to make a difference. In college, I didn’t have much money to donate, but I could sell $2 dirt cup desserts. Now, as an outreach coordinator at the Sabin Vaccine Institute and its program, the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, I work with high school and college students to help them educate their peers on these hidden diseases of poverty through the END7 campaign. Working together, we can all do our part to tell the world the secret about NTDs – and how close we are to seeing the end of them, for good.
What part can you play?
First, check out END7’s short video, “How to Shock a Celebrity,” to learn more. And, whether it’s making a small donation – five dollars will treat 10 children – to END7, or becoming actively involved with our campaign, you, too, can join the fight against NTDs.
If you or someone you know is ready to join our team of grassroots advocates, please reach me at Emily.Conron@sabin.org. I’d love to help you bring the END7 cause to your campus, place of worship or community. It’s easier than you think to get involved!
Let’s tell the world our secret. Go Irish!
Emily Conron ’13 is the Resource Development Coordinator for the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, a program of the Sabin Vaccine Institute.