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 Shangir Siddique’s reflection on his experience:
By Shangir H. Siddique, University of Texas Health Science Center
Life-changing. That is how I would describe my experience on NTD Student Advocacy Day. As a student who had just finished my Master of Public Health in Epidemiology and was about to start medical school in the fall, I had never thought I would be able to step into the world of the United States Government and have a direct impact on policymaking…at least, not this early. And yet, that is exactly what we, END7 student leaders from across the US, did on May 2.
Given that an appropriations deal for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2017 had been reached in Congress just days before Student Advocacy Day and that it protected funding for the United States Agency for International Development NTD Program, we were able to focus our Advocacy Day message on how potential future budget changes could drastically curtail our ability to treat and prevent NTDs worldwide. The key goal of the day was to convince our representatives in Congress to keep level funding for the program in the face of deep cuts to global health and development proposed by the Trump administration.
We began Advocacy Day with a series of presentations by professionals in the field. Michelle Brooks of Uniting to Combat NTDs started us off by giving a basic overview of the USAID NTD program, which tied in directly to our advocacy goal of protecting funding for this program. Kalpana Bhandari inspired us by explaining her experiences with NTDs both professionally and personally, sharing stories from her childhood in Nepal. As someone whose family comes from a country where some NTDs are endemic, I found her story to be exceptionally touching, and it motivated me to approached the day’s efforts with my all. Lastly, we learned about new surgical solutions to address NTDs from Zeina Sifri of Helen Keller International. These approaches to surgery and morbidity management complement the preventative approach of mass drug administration and could prove to be a life-changing solution for millions of people for whom taking currently available medications are not sufficient to prevent further disease or relieve suffering (such as in the case of elephantiasis caused by lymphatic filariasis). After a brief lunch where we went over our talking points, it was time to begin our jobs as advocates!
As part of group 5, I met with the offices of Representatives Kay Granger and Gregory Meeks, as well as Senator Chris Murphy’s office. As part of our “pitch” we explained what the USAID NTD Program has achieved since its creation under President George W. Bush, how the United States’ investment in global health, specifically the USAID program, is a smart use of resources that saves lives and enables effective foreign policy Latin America, Asia and Africa. Fortunately, the unanimous response from all three offices was great support towards maintaining the U.S.’s current position as a leader in global health. I found this to be extremely interesting, considering the differences between the three offices – both by political party affiliation and by which chamber of congress in which the member served. It was heartening to realize that partisanship is not strong enough to interfere with our country’s long history of global leadership in public health and medical interventions, innovation and advancement.
Perhaps my favorite part of Student Advocacy Day was the opportunity to interact with and learn from students interested in global health and NTDs from across the country. The wide representation we had state-wise proved to be effective in terms of using our status as constituents during our meetings. But beyond accomplishing our goals, it was extremely easy to bond with the other students and share our hopes, interests, and aspirations relating to NTDs and otherwise. I made a point to keep the contact list we were provided and take many pictures, and I am certain that many of the next generation of global health leaders will emerge from this group of students.
Walking into our advocacy meetings with the knowledge that the funding for the USAID NTD program was safe for the remainder of fiscal year 2017 but uncertain for 2018 was an excellent motivator for us to do our best to plan ahead. The current uncertainty around the Administration’s outlook on expenditures like foreign aid, including the USAID NTD Program, are deeply troubling for not only the NTD and global health community, but for all citizens of the U.S., and individuals all over the world. The risks associated with the U.S. potentially backing down from its leadership in global health would have severe repercussions across the globe and foretells a future where we may no longer be able to say we are a force for good worldwide – diminishing some of the U.S.’s global influence, which we have maintained since World War II.
It is my sincere hope that Congress lives up to its constitutional duties as the controller of the purse strings of the U.S. Government and makes smart, forward-thinking decisions about spending on global health and international development. While the Administration may attempt to advance a different agenda, it is up to our representatives on the Hill in both the House and the Senate to remember how their constituents not only desire a well-regarded and influential America but one that helps the impoverished worldwide as well.
Shangir Siddique recently completed his Master of Public Health-Epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center. He will start medical school this fall.