Redefining Health Equity: Dr. Paul Farmer Speaks at the Ath

Dr. Paul Farmer crafted his life around the belief that health is a universal right, not a gift.  Twenty years ago, the effective treatment of infectious diseases such as Tuberculosis and AIDS seemed a remote dream in the poorest of countries.  High costs discouraged many, and access to the poorest populations was limited. In recent years, however, Dr. Farmer has worked to change that. He explained, “A lot happened, a lot can happen, every time that you challenge these failures of imagination. So when you hear people say you can’t do this, you can’t do that,... don’t believe it.”

Dr. Farmer, medical anthropologist, physician, and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, spoke at the Athenaeum on April 11, 2011. At the beginning of his presentation, Dr. Farmer shocked audience members with a picture of a young man suffering from both TB and AIDS. Next to this startling photograph was one of the same man several years later; the differences in the pictures were so drastic that it took a moment to recognize that they were, in fact, the same man. With the help of medicine, he regained his health, and arguably his humanity. The man was Haitian, and Dr. Farmer explained that in previous decades it would have been impossible for him to receive the expensive treatment he needed.

Partners in Health (PIH), a non-profit that Dr. Farmer co-founded, has helped to improve the health care of impoverished peoples around the world and make such success stories the reality. PIH is now based in 12 countries and provides medical care to the poor free of charge.

Despite the seriousness of the issues discussed that night, Dr. Farmer was able to maintain a hopeful, and rather entertaining, demeanor throughout his speech.  During the most comical portion of his talk, Dr. Farmer aired his not-so-enamored views on economists, to which he joked that he should be wary of the economist spies in the audience. Upon viewing the many, and unsurprisingly, stunned CMC faces in the crowd, he explained his hesitant attitude toward economists and many other professionals--including important health care officials from WHO (World Health Organization)--who often criticize his goal of curing drug resistant diseases such as AIDS and TB in poor nations. Dr. Farmer has refused to let restraints like prices, and prevailing economic thought, dictate the level of available treatment.

Dr. Farmer noted that many Haitians had already suffered from severe food insecurity and homelessness prior to the life-shattering earthquake in January 2010. With the arrival of the crippling quake, new problems like the need for immediate medical care and housing of displaced persons have piled onto existing problems of poverty. Dr. Farmer offered his "diagnosis" of the problems in Haiti as "acute on chronic."  In other words, "acute" or short-term problems caused by the earthquake were contributing to already existing "chronic" problems of poverty.

In response to the growing need in Haiti, Dr. Farmer has embarked on his most ambitious project yet: PIH is building a $15 million hospital in Mirbalais, Haiti. Dr. Farmer points out that many of the problems Haitians faced cannot be solved by a hospital alone. Through addressing acute problems such as cholera, UTIs, and other illnesses, Dr. Farmer hopes to begin a discourse on Haiti’s chronic problems. The hospital, for example, will employ thousands in the short-term and hundreds in the long-term.

Dr. Farmer spoke with the author for a short time after his speech and book-signing. When asked his thoughts on the fairly recent trend of studying abroad in developing countries, Dr. Farmer suggested that students need not travel miles and miles to help alleviate poverty abroad. While there is certainly much to be done on the ground, Dr. Farmer remains convinced that just as much can be done from our humble college campuses.  Raising funds and spreading awareness can in fact do a great deal to alleviate poverty and create an informed culture.  With such encouragement from Dr. Paul Farmer, what else does a college student need to hear to get those activist muscles flexing?