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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Friday, April 20, 2007

Short White Coat: What students can do

Short White Coat is our new blog, written by first-year Harvard medical student Ishani Ganguli. Ishani's posts will appear here, as part of White Coat Notes. E-mail Ishani at shortwhitecoat@gmail.com.

By now the statistics, and the photos that bring them to life, are familiar but no less jarring: Ten million people die each year from preventable and treatable causes -— mostly infectious diseases long forgotten in the developed world. Developing nations account for 90 percent of global deaths but only 10 percent of pharmaceutical sales each year, in large part because drugs aren’t affordable.

Our spring course on Social Medicine switched this year from elective to mandatory as testament to a growing emphasis on humanism in medicine. Headed up by such global health celebrities as Jim Kim and Paul Farmer, the class tends to be focused accordingly, on problems in the developing world.

On Thursday afternoons, Farmer or Kim, co-founders of Partners in Health, stand behind the podium, present such statistics, and ask us what we can do to solve these problems in an earnest tone that suggests that even they, despite their decades of dedication to the cause, have little idea.

Sitting in the lecture hall, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and inadequate in the face of such challenges. But as our professors -- who began their global health work when they were classmates at Harvard Medical School -- know, students have a unique drive and capacity to effect change, especially on their home turf.

Two of my first-year friends, Craig Szela and Cyrus Yamin, are doing just that, calling universities to task on their global responsibilities. They’ve joined a national student movement, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), to convince Harvard and other institutions to help increase access to lifesaving drugs.

The idea is this: basic research in federally-funded university labs feeds a significant proportion of pharmaceutical pipelines for drugs against diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Get universities to stipulate in licensing agreements that essential medicines developed from their research be produced cheaply (read: generically) for the world’s poor to afford, and millions of lives will be saved. Backed by Farmer, Kim, four Nobel laureates, and a number of other prominent figures, UAEM is making clear progress.

Waxing eloquent on multi-drug resistant tuberculosis and intellectual property, Kim spoke before a packed lecture hall in Harvard Yard this week to mark UAEM’s National Day of Action (April 18), recognized across nearly 45 universities. At the end of yesterday's Social Medicine lecture on the same topic, Kim, a former head of global AIDS programs for the World Health Organization, reminded us of the credo behind the course -- "to teach [us] how to think socially about terrible problems like drug resistant TB and HIV, but then to understand how you can make a difference."

"Craig and Cyrus are making a difference," he declared. Empowering words for two first-years to hear, coming from the likes of Kim.

Posted by Ishani Ganguli at 07:05 PM
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