Tag Archives: opinion

Death at first contact: Why the world needs vaccinations

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Today I watched a really interesting documentary called “First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon”, which follows a team of Brazilian anthropologists who study isolated indigenous groups living in a stretch of Amazonian jungle straddling Brazil and Peru. In this documentary, they trace the first contact and resettlement of a small tribe of roughly 35 indigenous men, women, and children in Brazil who are fleeing persecution from the Peruvian army.

There was one part of the documentary that was exceptionally moving for me. When the first group of young warriors emerge from the forest and enter a small village, the team of anthropologists stationed there do all they can to dissuade the men from trying to take piles of clothes and blankets. As the narrator explains, the anthropologists know that these clothes and blankets are riddled with germs that the could make the indigenous—who have not developed any antibodies to fight diseases—severely ill, even kill them.

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A young man puts on a blue t-shirt he has taken from the village

Sadly, this is exactly what happens. As one man explains later, they came to the river often to watch the villagers and all they wanted was to wear clothes like they saw the villagers wearing. Another later says, “We like the clothes… we are embarrassed to be naked.” Bringing the clothes back to the other members of the tribe, the man recalls putting them on and soon after feeling a burning. All those who put on the clothes ended up riddled with fevers. Most in the tribe became severely ill. Several died. It was only once this uncontacted group emerged from the jungle for resettlement that the Brazilian government was able to provide them with medicine to combat the fevers that ravaged them as a result of wearing clothes. (Watch part of the footage here)

This is a perfect example—perhaps the perfect example—of the dangers of not receiving vaccinations. Avoiding serious illness is only possible when you are completely isolated, like this tribe in the Amazon. However, the moment you break through this barrier of isolation, you run the risk of contracting deadly diseases that your body cannot fight, even through an act as simple as putting on a shirt. And to be clear, living in the U.S. is not living in isolation. I am just one person and in my travels I’ve been exposed to everything from influenza and polio to typhoid, yellow fever, and malaria. To come into contact with me is to potentially come into contact with these diseases.

ribi-dropsTo echo Melinda Gates, we take vaccinations completely for granted in the U.S. because we’ve forgotten how deadly these diseases truly are. Few people in the U.S. know what death from diseases like measles, yellow fever, or influenza look like. Have you ever seen a polio survivor, unable to work, reduced to begging on the streets with malformed arms and legs? If you have, you are probably like the countless mothers in Asia and Africa who are walking 10 kilometers one-way to get their children life-saving polio vaccination drops. I’ve been lucky so far. I’ve traveled to malaria, yellow fever, and typhoid zones and never contracted the diseases. Friends of mine have not been so lucky. In many cases their health has been irreparably weakened and damaged.

As the vectors for these diseases change, which indeed they already are, people who once never had to worry about getting vaccinated will need to take preventative measures. These diseases are real, they are scary, and we are not safe. For example, in Indiana and Kentucky we are experiencing an outbreak of West Nile Virus. There are already confirmed deaths. So many measures can be taken to avoid these deaths. While there is no vaccine to prevent West Nile Virus, there are vaccines to prevent other related mosquito-borne illnesses.

Protect yourself, protect your children, protect all those around you and get vaccinated! I agree wholeheartedly with Melinda Gates, we are incredibly lucky to have this technology and we ought to take advantage of it!

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A Farewell to TOMS

TOMSAs I prepare to embark on three weeks of volunteering in Africa, I can’t help but reflect on some of the ongoing issues with providing aid to the continent. An analysis of the cause and effects of various aid schemes is vitally important if organizations are to understand whether their programs help or harm local people and economies. This article, published by the Matador Network, looks at SEVEN terrible international aid ideas, including the largely touted TOMS one-for-one shoe program. Built on the business model of manufacturing two cheap pairs of shoes for the price of one good pair (using labor and materials from China), author Richard Stupart argues that TOMS has the potential to completely destroy the market for shoes in the towns and villages where truckloads of free shoes are shipped and delivered. Journalist Amy Costello and host of Tiny Spark makes a great point here:

We think that by simply giving people things that we enjoy – like soccer balls or shoes – that we are somehow doing good…And I think that we really need to start questioning that a lot more, and figuring out is there something we can do that is a lot more effective? [Are] consumer products what a impoverished community needs?

Here is what I think….

Like Stupart and Costello argue, giving someone a free pair of shoes does not end their poverty, or provide them a job, it just provides shoes. Yes, I freely admit that shoes are vitally important for improving health standards and cutting down on a number of health issues from communicable diseases to infections that are usually spread by cuts and wounds suffered by exposed feet. And yes, in some areas of the world children are denied access to school without a pair of shoes, so providing them with a pair gets them one step closer to an education. And YES, if you look in my closet I have a pair of well-worn, well-traveled TOMS.

HOWEVER after learning more about the company and the ways in which free “stuff-we-don’t-want” can devastate local economies that are in desperate need of their citizens to invest money and BUY local, I will never buy another pair of TOMS. In all my travels to “developing” countries, the message is loud and clear: “please buy local!” Don’t give to beggars on the street because it disincentives them to go seek real work. Don’t buy $60 worth of school supplies at the Dollar Store and ship them to your orphanage in Tanzania, buy these supplies in town and support the local economy.

buy localEven here in Louisville you see everywhere the huge push to buy local. Places like NuLu actively promote the use of local produce and community gardens have spread across the city. Keep Louisville Weird is another popular initiative for Louisvillians to eat/buy/sell/stay local. Everywhere the message is the same–why pay to have things imported when we can make it/buy it/grow it/ manufacture it here?! And why should it be any different in other cities and towns across the world? If I can buy school supplies from a Zambian market to give to Zambian children to be used in a Zambian school, isn’t that better than importing my cheap Dollar Store crap made in China bought in Louisville?

Regarding the issue of shoes and school– shoes are not the only barrier keeping children from going to school. In countries around the world, particularly African countries like Uganda and Zambia, the school fees charged by government schools are far above what the average family living below the poverty line can afford. In these cases, it’s not a matter of if a child has shoes to go to school, the families cannot pay the fees either way.

So you can buy a pair of TOMS Blue Basket Weave Women’s Desert Wedges for $185.00 and tell yourself you are at the same time in some way abstractly helping a shoeless child, or you can take that money, donate it to an on-the-ground organization like Dream Livingstone Zambia that works directly with orphaned and poor children, and pay over SEVEN months of school fees for a very real, very needy child.