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Fighting The Diseases Of Poverty



David Livingston, one of the 1800’s most beloved personalities, is best remembered as an explorer. He was the first person know to traverse southern Africa, to see Victoria Falls, and to walk the length of the Nile River, discovering its origins. But Livingston’s autobiography documents a different identity. He saw himself primarily as a physician and as a messenger of Jesus. During the first eleven years of his career, Livingston lived in South Africa, devoting the majority of his life to caring for the sick and starting churches.


In his autobiography, Livingston described the diseases he most often encountered in Africa: pneumonia, malaria, TB, dysentery and birth complications. He himself died in Zambia in 1873 of malaria and dysentery. Today, the startling fact is that these same diseases remain the leading causes of death in poorer nations. Wealthier nations on our planet enjoy life expectancies into the 80’s and child mortality is significantly less than 1 percent. By stark contrast, life expectancy for Africa as a whole is only 51. In some nations the average person only lives to the youthful age of 41, with 25 percent of children dying before age five – even before first grade. This should not be so!


This year’s Humanitarian Health Conference will emphasize the strategies proven most effective in fighting the diseases of poverty. While some of these strategies are outside the traditional realm of medicine, health leaders must nevertheless be advocates for:


• Economic Development. Health status is intimately connected with economic status. Today’s nations of poverty host the highest prevalence of TB, malaria, HIV and malnutrition. As national economies develop, these diseases become less frequent and life expectancies prolong. A prime example of this phenomenon is the remarkable economic and health advances that have occurred in China since the 1980s. One particular organization making a significant improvement in local economies is Heifer International. By providing families with animals and training, Heifer helps to alleviate hunger, generate income and foster community health.

• Ending Military Conflicts. “Currently, nations with the most devastated health conditions are also nations that are, or recently were, at war. These include Gaza, Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Congo, and more. The British Medical Journal, 2002, declares, “In many war zones, violent deaths are often only a tiny proportion of overall deaths.” The article further notes a survey from eastern Congo that illustrates the precarious health issues that many poverty-stricken countries endure…”Of 2.5 million, only 350,000 were because of direct violence; most died from malnutrition and disease.” Despite these disturbing circumstances, esteemed organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse are valiantly working to negotiate settlements and ceasefires and to provide relief in the most troubled lands.

• Effective Disease Interventions. Some of the most successful actions against the leading diseases of poverty include supplying of safe drinking water, providing mosquito nets to prevent malaria, educating to curb HIV transmission, and provision of basic prenatal care. Some low-resource nations, short of nurses and physicians, effectively utilize community health workers to rapidly recognize and treat TB, pneumonia, and hypertension.


Livingston would be sickened to know that people are still succumbing to the same diseases of poverty, and I believe he would be proud to learn that you yourself joined him in caring for them.


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