How we write about global health…


PJ Hotez writing in the New York Times

These are, most likely, the most important diseases you’ve never heard of. They disproportionately affect Americans living in poverty, and especially minorities, including up to 2.8 million African-Americans with toxocariasis and 300,000 or more people, mostly Hispanic Americans, with Chagas disease. The neglected tropical diseases thrive in the poorer South’s warm climate, especially in areas where people live in dilapidated housing or can’t afford air-conditioning and sleep with the windows open to disease-transmitting insects. They thrive wherever there is poor street drainage, plumbing, sanitation and garbage collection, and in areas with neglected swimming pools.

PJ Hotez. His name has somewhat become synonymous with neglected tropical diseases, being not only a researcher but also a leading advocate for the diseases we never hear about and never give many column inches to.

Global health topics — the broccoli of all science news — rarely get the attention they deserve so it’s nice to see it in the NY Times. More importantly, the way we write about global health all too often comes from the same place. An article on global health will always portray the gravity of the situation with numbers. How many people a year are affected by the disease. Some diseases come with that, for lack of a better term,  killer-stat — “every 30 seconds a child dies of malaria”. The stats are there for a reason.

An article on global health might start with the plight of the individual.

Twelve-year-old Sunday Oderinde sits by the side of the road with both legs folded under him and watches his friends play a game of soccer on the streets of Iwaya, a suburb in Lagos, Nigeria. It is a game that he would love to join in but cannot.Oderinde contracted polio as a child. Though 90 percent of polio infections cause no symptoms at all, Oderinde’s limbs were paralysed. Now he can only walk with the help of crutches, which he keeps by his side as he watches as the game plays out on a makeshift football pitch.

A global health article might also seek to employ hyperbole. PJ Hotez certainly has done on occassion. Coming under criticism for it aswell. The hyperbole is there for a reason.

But Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine, said he penned the provocative editorial to rally resources for people with Chagas disease. “I wanted to call attention to the disease; make people aware of it,” said Hotez, adding he had no intention to diminish the impact of HIV/AIDS. “I believe that Chagas disease is every bit as important as the AIDS problem, but no one’s ever heard of the disease.”

Therein lies the shared confession.

To be honest, this is more of a half-observation than an all-encompassing critique in the vain of “How Not to Write About Africa“. Perhaps the trouble in the way we write about global health is that it stems from the fact that all too often global health is intrinsically tied to the world of aid and development. Anytime we seek to write about the world’s “bottom billion” a part of us is looking for the reader to be compelled to do something about it. “Rally resources” is another way of saying advocacy. Given the fact that little funding at every stage is put aside for global health (unless you happen to be Melinda Gates), then that advocacy component will no doubt remain.


Image — source


What had I twaught…

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