Neglected Tropical Diseases: Hard to Pronounce, Easy to Care About
Schistosomiasis, elephantiasis, ascariasis – The names of these neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are long and hard to pronounce. But advocating for the control and elimination of these diseases that affect more than a billion people worldwide is easy. This is a lesson I learned in college – on my way to becoming “That NTD Girl.”
Growing up, I always preferred subjects like English and history to science. I rolled my eyes when my grandmother sent me clippings from Science magazine and the New York Times “Science” section in her relentless effort to push me in another direction. Imagine my surprise when I got to college and decided to pursue a career in global health!
The turning point came during a required science class my freshman year. While sitting in Common Human Diseases class, as my professor clicked through photos and statistics about children suffering from NTDs and explained how easy they are to treat, I became excited about the possibilities science holds for improving people’s lives. I began to realize the skills needed for the liberal arts subjects I loved, skills like critical thinking, persuasive writing and interpreting research, were also necessary for effective global health advocacy. I began to see that non-science majors – and non-scientists – have a vital role to play in the fight for global health equity.
The next step was convincing other people of that. Friends and classmates reacted with confusion when they realized I was a psychology and theology double major rather than something in the College of Science, like biology. They usually responding with something along the lines of, “But you’re that NTD girl!” (the awkward nickname I somehow acquired as President of ND Fighting NTDs, a student advocacy group I helped launch at my alma mater, Notre Dame). “I thought you were pre-med or something.”
No, I would explain wearily, but that didn’t mean I didn’t care about global health. To me, NTDs were an issue of social justice, a matter of fairly distributing resources that most of us in developed countries take for granted – simple and effective drugs that we have had access to for decades. I didn’t need to have a biology degree to realize that. To try to convince my fellow un-science-y folks to think likewise, I organized a number of ND Fighting NTDs events aimed at non-science majors.
One of the most successful was a panel discussion we called “Diseases of Poverty: A Major Problem, A Problem for Every Major.” We invited professors from seven different disciplines, from sociology to economics, to speak about how their field could contribute to advancing global health. Fr. Tom Streit, the professor who led me to my science epiphany freshman year and the founder of the Notre Dame Haiti Program, explained how his own thinking on interdisciplinary engagement in global health has evolved:
“Those of us who work in the health sciences are always thinking this heavy burden [of diseases of poverty] is something we can solve, and we alone – and that’s absolutely false. Because we need the kind of expertise that’s represented here, and in fact, in recent years it’s precisely the addition of more and more people from the humanities, from business, from law that has changed the whole perspective of global health.”
The panel helped students see the connections between issues they may have previously regarded as unrelated – culture and disease prevention, for example, or moral reasoning and international policymaking.
The club decided to organize more events to draw in non-science majors – including a field trip to meet with pharmaceutical representatives so business students could discuss drug development from a corporate angle, as well as a panel on “Global Health and National Security” to appeal to ROTC students. All of these events were designed to show that a science background is not the only starting point for a career in global health.
I recently received a message from an ND Fighting NTDs member that made me very happy. She wrote, “When I walked into my first ND Fighting NTDs meeting freshmen year, it set off a little spark in me – I realized that you could be passionate and involved in global health issues, without a science background.” That’s a message that needs to be spread far and wide if we want to get the most talented and effective people to join the global health community in the movement for a world free of treatable and preventable diseases like NTDs.