Word One

“Vague Notion” Does Tangible Good

Dr. Paul Farmer visited Haiti in 1983 “with the vague notion that he would try to do some good,” according to Business Week. He was appalled by conditions there. Half of the children were dying by age five.

Claretians and other missionaries have long helped improve the health of villagers in poor countries by sponsoring clinics, or at least working for clean water and public health necessities such as covering dirt floors and using tin roofs instead of straw.

Dr. Farmer, with his medical background, has taken that idea a big step further by founding the nonprofit Partners in Health and developing a community-based approach to health care endorsed by the World Health Organization.

Having expanded from Haiti to Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Rwanda, and a TB-ridden area of Siberia, PIH recently set up in Lesotho, a small mountainous country in southern Africa, which has only one doctor for every 200,000 people, along with the world’s third-highest rate of HIV infection. Only a small fraction of the people have access to running water or electricity.

PIH has already trained 75 village health workers to diagnose and treat their neighbors for many common ailments that don’t require the ultimate in medical expertise.

For example, a medical outreach worker can supervise an AIDS or tuberculosis victim to make sure the patient takes the proper dose of medication on the proper schedule. This not only helps the patient, but prevents the development of new drug-resistant strains.

Dr. Farmer argues that health care is a basic human right, not a luxury for those who can afford it. He says his mission “is less about assisting the distant needy and more about repairing a broken world.”

By the end of 2008, PIH expects to operate nine rural health centers serving more than 300,000 people. Some of the sites are accessible only by small single-engine aircraft, but PIH has made arrangements to fly in medications as needed.

So that other would-be helpers can profit from PIH’s experience, the Boston-based organization has developed a handbook, posted on the Internet: The PIH Guide to the Community-Based Treatment of HIV/AIDS in Resource-Poor Settings.

This article appeared in the October 2006 (Volume 34, Number 4) issue of Word One.

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