From the Capital of MS to the Capitol of the US

The END7 campaign, through the support of Uniting to Combat NTDs, awarded scholarships to three outstanding student leaders to attend the third annual NTD Student Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. Read scholarship winner Bethany Summerford’s reflection on her experience:

By Bethany Summerford, University of Mississippi Medical Center

student adv day pic 3I first learned about END7 last fall at the beginning of my first year of medical school when I attended a lecture that promised free lunch on my campus. When the hour was over, I walked away with much more than a stomach full of pizza. Learning about END7 and the struggles so many of the world’s poorest people deal with every day due to neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) compelled me to become more involved. I joined the Global Health Interest Group at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in hopes to do more to help further the END7 campaign’s goals. When I heard about NTD Student Advocacy Day and was invited to attend, I jumped at the chance to advocate for global health funding through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

My day in Washington, D.C., began with coffee at Mississippi Mornings, a constituent coffee held each Tuesday by Senator Roger Wicker in his D.C. office. Not only is Sen. Wicker the senator of my home state, he is also Chairman of the Malaria and NTD Caucus. Having the opportunity to have a quick chat and snap a picture with someone who is so passionate about this cause was a great way to kick off the day.

I spent the rest of the morning with my fellow Advocacy Day participants in a briefing where representatives of several organizations involved in NTD advocacy, programming and research gave presentations and updates on their roles in eliminating these diseases. The one presentation that spoke to me the most was given by Zeina Sifri from Helen Keller International (HKI). Ms. Sifri spoke about eyelid surgery used to treat trichiasis, which is the stage of trachoma infection that causes blindness due to eyelashes scratching the cornea.

Sifri introduced us to the HEAD START program, where surgeons are able to practice the trichiasis surgery on a mannequin designed to simulate patients they will see in areas affected by trachoma. As a future health care provider, I was amazed at the innovation and creativity needed to prepare physicians to treat NTDs in the field. Watching videos of patients who have received the surgery and hearing about the positive turn their lives had taken made me see the real impact of these surgeries, funded through the USAID NTD Program.

student adv day pic 4

Following the morning briefing, we were broken up into small groups and began to plan our strategies for the afternoon meetings in congressional offices. Each meeting started with our group leader, Michelle Brooks from Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Centre, giving a brief overview of END7, NTDs, and the need to protect funding for the USAID NTD program, which is at risk of being cut.

The two other members of my group and myself then each spoke about the progress that has been made against NTDs and called for continued US support of the cause. One of the coolest marks of progress, in my opinion, is the Guinness World Record recently set by members of the Uniting to Combat NTDs coalition. On January 30th, 2017, these partners donated more than 200 million NTD medicines around the world – enough to set a world record for “most medication donated in 24 hours.” That is so awesome!

My group was able to meet with the offices of senators from Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, California and Mississippi. Even though offices from many different states (and different political parties) were represented, they all agreed on how important it is to maintain the current level of funding for global health and development. It was refreshing and encouraging to hear their support for continuing the fight to eliminate NTDs.

Advocacy Day ended with a reception in the Capitol building, where we were all able to see and take pictures with the Guinness World Record. We also had the opportunity to listen to remarks by Loyce Pace, President of Global Health Council, who left us with inspirational words and a charge to continue to advocate for global health. After attending Student Advocacy Day, my passion for fighting NTDs has grown even more. I hope to become more involved with the effort to eliminate NTDs and definitely plan to attend Advocacy Day next year.

Bethany Summerford is a first year medical student at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

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