This winter, I have been working in a free health care clinic in Providence, helping line up uninsured patients for H1N1 vaccine. While working at the clinic, I remember winters past spent working, as a medical student, on a measles vaccine campaign in Zaire. I remember the scorching heat of central Africa, the many small children in the villages, the smell of sweat in the crowded clinics, the babies crying after their shots, and the mothers laughing and calling out to each other as they carried the crying children away. We brought the sickest ones back to the bush hospital in our truck – terrified, and – if not crying, then deathly ill. One tiny child could not swallow, and had not eaten for days. During the ride, her mother started weeping. That small child was dead – from measles – by the time the truck pulled in.
That memory is one reason I do the work that I do – a decision reinforced by experiences in Kananga, Mbuji Mai and Katanga in Zaire, at Baragwaneth in Soweto, South Africa, and at the Cayetano Heredia, in Lima Peru. In those far-flung places, I witnessed tremendous differences in the health care provided to the rich and the poor. The consequences were often lethal. I can say the same for Rhode Island, my home state, where a hundred thousand people do not have access to health care. Why does one person have access to life saving treatment, and another not have that same chance? Access to health care is a human right – and this, I believe: the right to health should not be limited by the place you live or your luck of birth.
As a scientist, I am working on developing vaccines for AIDS and TB. In truth, nothing is as effective as vaccination, especially in rural villages in Africa, where first world medicine has not yet extended its reach. A vaccine can stop children from dying from influenza, here in Providence, and from measles, in places as far away as Timbuktu. Especially for Africa, a vaccine that will stop HIV transmission is the only hope for children, who are now dying, as they were once dying with measles, in droves.
We, the fortunate, who have experienced the power of access to care, to vaccination, must speak about it. We must teach about it. And we must do it. As physicians who know the importance of access to care, we must make it so. For that reason, I work on an AIDS vaccine by day, and I work at the free clinic at night, as I remember the child who died from a lack of a measles vaccine so long ago. While working at the clinic, I dream of the future and imagine a world without malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV.