Turning Learning into Lifesaving: Uncovering a Public Health Crisis in Peru

BILL: The work that we do really focuses on
the relationship between population change and environment change. When I started at Duke in 2011, I started
a new project in Madre de Dios under the typical hypothesis that I used in the northern Amazon,
which was basically that new road construction causes the expansion of vector-borne disease. Bass Connections was instrumental for establishing
the research that we have in Madre de Dios on the ground. ERNESTO: The Bass students are usually students
from undergraduate or graduate students from different backgrounds: biology, global health,
and medicine. We get them involved in our projects that
are ongoing in the region and also they develop their own small projects within our big projects. BILL: The thing that we provide that’s very
different through Bass is actually allowing the students to interact with mothers, children,
healthcare providers, parents, the people who live and work on the ground every single
day and the problems they have, and understand that development isn’t just a made-up word
that has very little meaning. It actually has a lot of significance to people
who are beneficiaries of the policies and programs that we can provide and we can provide
evidence for. MARGOT: I discovered the Bass Connections
program through the Duke Global Health Institute. It was an opportunity for me to combine my
two passions, international relations and global health and I got to implement in the
field what I had learned in the classroom previously here at Duke. BILL: That project, very quickly we learned
that the true problems that were existing in Madre de Dios really had to do with gold
mining and the issues associated with gold mining; not just economic issues, but environmental
issues and toxicological issues. We knew that they were using mercury for extracting
the gold out of the sediment and out of the soils that are along the watershed. This is something we knew was causing massive
changes in nutrition. Once we saw in small samples that fish mercury
levels were high, human hair and exposure levels were high, we expanded our studies
and we looked at other exposures in different parts of the region. What we basically found was that 42 percent
of the entire regional population has a mercury level that exceeds the World Health Organization’s
safe thresholds for mercury exposure. 78 percent were above the U.S. EPA limits
for safety. We presented our research to the former minister
of health. By May of 2016, they declared a state of emergency. And now that the new minister of health, Patty
Garcia, has been appointed with the new president of Peru, she is really taking the lead in
trying to address the heavy metal exposures across Peru. Our team is leading the research on mercury
exposures in Madre de Dios, and it’s very recognized that we’re the experts and we provide
the expertise for mercury exposures for most of the country of Peru. If we didn’t have Bass Connections, we would
not be able to make those strong collaborations that we have on the ground with NGOs, Peruvian
universities, with the minister of health, because our Bass students really help us engage
the communities in that way. MARGOT: Working with different people from
Duke was an amazing experience. We all had very different backgrounds both
from a cultural point of view but also professional and educational point of view. What was great is that we discovered that
in the field we complimented each other and really learned how to use the strength of
every person to the best of our abilities. LUIZA: The global health fieldwork experience
that was provided to me through Bass Connections, I think, really allowed me to see what it’s
like to be in the field where you cannot control all the variables that are coming into play. Where you have to interact with individuals. Where you have to learn where they’re coming
from, understand their necessities. At the end of the day, really try to make
a difference in this world. BILL: We want to develop policies and interventions
that improve health and simultaneously provide sustainable solutions for the environment. The addition of Bass Connections is a way
to get students involved in that research and policy arena. If we can demonstrate that a country that’s
emerging from a developed status to a more developed status—and if they can create
policies that sustain their environment while growing economically and improving health
indicators—that would be a success. That could be a model for other countries.

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