To Helminth It – Let’s Go to D.C.

The END7 campaign awarded scholarships to three outstanding student leaders to attend the second annual END7 Student Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. Read scholarship winner Cyrus Ghaznavi’s reflection on his experience in D.C.:

By Cyrus Ghaznavi, Rice University

Nearly a year after the first ever END7 Advocacy Day in April of 2015, I was back on a plane headed nonstop to Reagan National Airport. The second annual Advocacy Day was less than 24 hours away!

Over the past year, Rice University’s chapter of END7 has grown significantly. Our general membership and committees have expanded and awareness of our cause on campus has blossomed. We have hosted trivia nights, fundraisers, Super Smash Bros video game tournaments, petition drives, and much more. Consequently, what once started as a relatively obscure club on campus has now gained significant traction within the Rice community.

Bera office

Cyrus (far right) and his group meet with Representative Ami Bera of California on the second annual END7 Student Advocacy Day.

However, though we have worked extensively to advocate for NTDs “inside the hedges,” the Rice chapter of END7 strongly believes that official policy change is needed to successfully control and eliminate the seven most common NTDs. In fact, our mission states that “END7 at Rice is an organization that strives to raise awareness…for our mission with local and national policymakers.” And so, when I was faced with the question of whether or not to attend the second annual END7 Advocacy Day, it was a no-brainer.

The momentous day was kicked off by Senator Roger Wicker, co-chair of the Senate Caucus on Malaria and NTDs, who had invited the END7 group to morning coffee. After socializing and meeting our morning coffee quota, we took pictures with the Senator, who explained that NTDs are an issue very near and dear to his heart. After coffee, we were welcomed by Dr. Neeraj Mistry, Managing Director of the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases. We were then presented with informative presentations by representatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development, RTI International, and Helen Keller International, before grabbing lunch in our small groups.

Last year, I had the pleasure of working with Kathryn McGrath, who works with END7 as a member of the Global Network staff, as the leader of my small group. Perhaps not coincidentally, she was my group’s leader again, so we immediately had a dynamic and strategy for how to pitch our case to the four House Representatives we would be meeting that day. Working with my teammates Antonia, also from Rice University, and Elaine, from the University of Texas at Dallas, we devised a division of labor as to which points we would each hit in our meetings with staff.

Kathryn started each meeting with a brief introduction to END7, after which Elaine jumped in by sharing some of USAID’s most persuasive statistics. One of every six people globally suffers from one of the seven most common NTDs. For every $1 invested into the program, $26 worth of donated pharmaceuticals are leveraged. For a mere $0.50, an at-risk individual can be treated and protected from the seven most common NTDs for a year. So far, 1.4 billion treatments have been distributed to almost 700 million individuals. Antonia would then shift gears and relay some of the more human, emotional aspects of the program and NTDs. She mentioned that children miss school and parents miss work when infected, reinforcing the cycle of poverty. She went over some of the disfiguring and debilitating symptoms of these seven diseases, and wrapped up by talking about the stigma associated with them. At this point, I pounced by synthesizing what those before me had mentioned. I asked if the Representative would support increasing USAID NTD funding by 25 percent instead of allowing it to be cut by 13.5 percent. Additionally, I implored the staffers to encourage their Representatives to join the Congressional Caucus on Malaria and NTDs, if they were not members already. “This is not the time to lose momentum – USAID funding is critical during this watershed time,” we would conclude.

We had four successful meetings with Representative staffers, and even got to meet one of the Representatives in person: Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), with whom we briefly chatted and took some pictures! He was a very unique case, given that he has an M.D. and can thus see NTDs from both a medical and political standpoint. As a pre-medical student studying both biology and policy, I felt that my interaction with Rep. Bera was particularly meaningful – especially since my group also visited his office during the 2015 END7 Student Advocacy Day!

At the end of the day, we all attended a reception where Barbara Bush, CEO and co-founder of Global Health Corps, and Peter Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, spoke to the END7 advocates. Ms. Bush’s speech was truly moving and inspiring, urging us to global health action. Dr. Hotez recounted the beginnings of END7 and the USAID campaign, putting all of our advocacy into a unique, historical context.

And before I knew it, the day was over. As a group of nearly 50 students and leaders, we had spoken to almost 40 congressmen/women or their staff. Our pitches were not partisan, nor were they communicated out of self-interest: we were all passionate voices in the realm of NTDs, and we were all thrilled to be in the Capital.

Speaking for Rice, I cannot express how proud I am of the growth and commitment I have seen in just one year’s time. Last year, three students, including myself, attended this trip. This year, we had almost 20, comprising the large plurality of the advocates who attended (even compared to the schools in Washington)! I can only imagine how much more growth we will see in the coming years. Here’s to counting down to next year’s advocacy day!

Barbara Bush with student advocates from Rice University at the END7 Student Advocacy Day closing reception.

Barbara Bush with student advocates from Rice University at the END7 Student Advocacy Day closing reception.

Cyrus Ghaznavi is a junior at Rice University studying Biological Sciences & Policy Studies. He represents Rice on the END7 Campus Leaders Council and participated in the END7 Student Advocacy Day in 2015 and 2016.

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