Forum looks at how U.S. universities help solve global health issues

by Beth Griffin

NEW YORK (CNS) — Two American universities, working with international partners, are making advances in disease prevention and treatment that affect the lives of thousands of people in developing countries.

Representatives from the University of Notre Dame and Purdue University described their efforts to representatives of nongovernmental organizations at “Global Health in Focus,” a Sept. 25 panel discussion held at the Church of the Holy Family in New York.

The forum was a side event to the opening of the 62nd session of the U.N. General Assembly. It was organized by the Holy See’s U.N. mission and co-sponsored by the Path to Peace Foundation, Notre Dame and Purdue. Both universities are in Indiana.

In welcoming participants, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican nuncio to the United Nations, said the idea for the event came to him when he was a speaker at Purdue University.

“I was fascinated to discover the important strides being made in research and technology at Purdue, as well as the incredible work being done in some of the farthest parts of the world by the University of Notre Dame,” he said.

“I thought it would be a good idea to invite these very dedicated and gifted professors to New York to shed some light on their important work and to raise awareness for the potential that these universities possess,” he said.

Ten speakers described the universities’ ongoing projects and planned initiatives to harness the energy and expertise of their combined faculties and student bodies to promote global health.

Dennis Jacobs, vice president and associate provost of Notre Dame, said students work alongside faculty in projects in Benin and Uganda. In Benin, the focus is on combining advanced analytical techniques with low-tech monitoring methods to help villagers preserve water quality.

In Uganda, Notre Dame works with Uganda Martyrs University on a long-term project to promote human development and alleviate poverty. Holy Cross Father Bob Dowd said that Notre Dame is also a partner in a project there called Millennium Village.

Millennium Village is a concept developed by scientists at Columbia University and the United Nations. Its goal is to end extreme rural poverty in 12 African villages by working directly with affected communities, nongovernmental organizations and national governments.

Father Dowd said Notre Dame supports a “multidisciplinary, holistic approach. We want to appreciate the religious and cultural factors that affect human development.”

He said the Notre Dame partnership with Uganda Martyrs University helps that Catholic institution expand its outreach. “Now, they are promoting agricultural productivity, but they hope to expand into health care and water projects,” he said.

Jacobs also described a Notre Dame program which addresses common, debilitating parasitic diseases in Haiti. One such disease is elephantiasis, which affects the lymphatic system and causes grotesque and irreversible swelling of the limbs, breasts and genitals.

“Mass distribution of low-cost tablets has already reduced the incidence of disfiguring elephantiasis by 40 percent,” he said, “and we think it can be eliminated in another six years.”

Holy Cross Father Tom Streit is the director of Notre Dame’s Haiti program. He said that the active ingredient in the tablet can also be added to table salt, giving the drug more widespread distribution. Notre Dame is also advocating adding iodine to salt to promote healthy brain development in children.

Joseph Pekny, director of Purdue University’s Discovery Park e-Enterprise Center, said universities are in an excellent position to solve complex problems.

“Universities are long-term, persistent and adaptive,” he said. “Even though the problems are nasty, we can, like drops of water, break the problem down, year after year.”

Pekny described Purdue’s Discovery Park as an interdisciplinary campus whose mission is to connect the university’s research capability to the work of other groups to make advances in global health.

“We see Discovery Park as an engine for collaborative activity,” said Pekny. “We seed the ideas, nurture them and then put the best ones out there in the world. The University of Notre Dame villages are great test beds for Purdue research.”

Pekny said that one Purdue project developed an airtight, nonchemical storage container for cowpeas, which are a staple food throughout Africa. Another is working on parasite-resistant versions of traditional African foods.

In Tanzania, Purdue is replicating some of its industrial pharmacy programs at the Kilimanjaro School of Pharmacy. The goal is to provide the same level of training there as at Purdue and to encourage local production of needed drugs.

Alan Rebar, executive director of Discovery Park, said that Purdue and Notre Dame collectively have more than 3,000 faculty members. The two universities have similar goals, though they are not yet working together on specific projects.

Jacobs said the forum “represented a brief summary of some of the global health projects pursued on each campus. Purdue and Notre Dame have recently begun exploring ways to collaborate around these initiatives, and I expect those partnerships to take form in the coming year.”

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