By Anjali Bhatla, Cyrus Ghaznavi and Sri Gopakumar
Rice University Undergraduates
On a bright spring morning in Washington, D.C., we stood outside the U.S. Capitol in the middle of a whirlwind, 32-hour trip from Houston, Texas. As we stood in the clearance line to enter the Capitol Visitors Center, we reviewed our materials to prepare for a day of meetings with congressional offices to advocate for a global health issue that each of us has become very passionate about. When we were invited by the Global Network to attend the first-ever END7 Student Advocacy Day on April 22, we realized that this would be a rare opportunity for us to get involved with the political process surrounding the federal budget and lend our voice in support of neglected tropical disease (NTD) treatment.
This semester, we founded a campus chapter of the END7 campaign at Rice University after we were all separately introduced to the issue of NTDs by Dr. Peter Hotez, President of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, the founding dean of the Baylor College of Medicine National School of Tropical Medicine in Houston and a Baker Institute Fellow in Disease and Poverty at Rice University. Whether it was through working for Dr. Hotez or taking his seminar class, the three of us have been deeply moved by what he has taught us about NTDs – an important but neglected global health issue.
NTDs have been shown to perpetuate the cycle of poverty by impairing physical and cognitive development, decreasing economic productivity, negatively affecting maternal and child health, and socially stigmatizing those that are afflicted. END7 at Rice is taking a three-pronged approach to addressing the need for greater investment in NTD prevention and treatment through committees focused on marketing, fundraising and advocacy. To increase awareness of NTDs in our community, we plan to implement creative events, programming and social media campaigns across campus. And, through our END7 chapter, we hope to facilitate an exchange of ideas on how to address health disparities in the developing world.
We are particularly concerned about the funding gap for NTD treatment programs. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Neglected Tropical Disease program has been essential in providing NTD treatments around the world – more than 1.2 billion to date – but proposed cuts to the program’s funding in the fiscal year (FY) 2016 budget could stifle and potentially reverse the progress already made by the program to the NTD elimination effort. Having just started Rice’s END7 chapter, we decided that going to DC would teach us valuable lessons we could bring back to Houston and provide us with a greater context for our chapter’s goals.
On the morning of the event, we gathered in a wood-paneled conference room in the Capitol Visitors Center and received a briefing on the global effort against NTDs from leaders of the Global Network, USAID, RTI International and WASH Advocates. Then we split into small groups for our afternoon meetings in congressional offices with each person taking on a particular role. One student would provide some background for their involvement in the END7 campaign: “I’ve been able to travel to countries including Haiti and India, where NTDs are endemic, and have seen firsthand the socioeconomic impacts these diseases have.” Another would carefully lay out the key statistics: “1 in 6 people are infected with an NTD!…more than one billion people in all!…every $1 of taxpayer funding leverages $26 worth of donated drugs, an incredible return on investment!” A third student would paint a holistic picture of the budgetary issue at hand and hammer in the final message: “Funding the USAID NTD Program is critical to solving this global health problem. Maintaining our momentum is essential and we don’t want to lose the good work we’ve done.” Then we answered questions about NTDs and USAID’s work to educate our leaders and their staff about this key global health issue. We concluded our meetings by inviting members of Congress to join either the Senate Caucus on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases or the Congressional Caucus on Malaria and NTDs (one U.S. Representative joined that same day!) and delivering student signatures on END7’s petition to increase NTD funding to $125 million in FY 2016. (We had collected nearly 200 signatures on our campus alone!)
At the end of the day, our time on the Hill brought the conversation surrounding NTDs alive for us in a new way. We learned so much during our time in Washington that we didn’t mind missing a few classes (even though finals were just around the corner!). Advocating alongside leaders of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases and fellow student supporters of the END7 campaign in meetings in congressional offices opened our eyes to the importance of public policy in the fight against NTDs. As aspiring physicians, we hope to become civically minded professionals who can communicate information effectively to our lawmakers. By engaging in the political process during the END7 Student Advocacy Day, we learned the importance of the student voice in advocating for NTD treatment. We genuinely hope that our message was well-received: the USAID NTD program budget is a best buy in global health and increased funding is needed to allow the progress of USAID’s NTD program to continue. We are excited to see that the 24 Hill meetings students participated in on April 22 have already made an impact, with the addition of a new representative to the Congressional Caucus on Malaria and NTDs and positive signs of increased support from key leaders. As students around the country mobilize around this cause, we hope the U.S. government takes a leading role in prioritizing NTD funding in the FY2016 budget and contributes crucial resources toward the NTD fight. We hope to return to D.C. next year to continue engaging in the political process as citizens, students and future medical professionals dedicated to seeing the end of NTDs.
You can support END7’s advocacy to protect and increase the USAID NTD budget by sending a message to your Senator. Learn more in our infographic and this Buzzfeed post created by student supporters and be sure to check out the END7 Student Advisory Board’s op-ed in the Hill!