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Roadshow pulls into town

By Brian Kluepfel, Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday July 18, 2002

Doctors Without Borders 


“Today, I was diagnosed with tuberculosis. I will have to stay in the hospital six months in order to be cured. Since I’ve been diagnosed fairly early, the chances of my recovery are good,” said a role player in a game put on by health organization Doctors Without Borders. 

The role-player’s anticipated recovery cannot be shared by many who get what is sometimes referred to as “the White Plague.” Every minute, four people around the globe die from this treatable disease, according to the international health care group. 

The volunteer organization was in Berkeley this week as part of a 30-city, yearlong tour of Access Expo, an exhibit that spotlights a lack of medical access in the developing world.  

Each year up to 14 million people die from treatable, infectious diseases, organizers said. 

The aim of the Access Expo is to collect one million signatures to send to President George W. Bush, and encourage pharmaceutical companies to consider health care before profits. Petitions, due in the Spring of 2003, will also go to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. People visiting the Access Expos’ 48-foot truck this week are asked to deposit signed postcards in pill-box shaped bins. 

The tour of the truck starts with participants spinning the “Wheel of Misfortune,” which determines the disease the participant must feign. One person’s spin comes up green.  

He is given a plastic laminated green card detailing his symptoms: “I live in Uzbekistan and have a continual cough, night sweats, and experience dizzy spells.” 

The participant enters the exhibit to learn about the illness. He reads about Lida from the Republic of Georgia who now has a multidrug resistant form of TB (many persons like Lida stop taking pills before the treatment is complete, resulting in these dangerous strains).  

The participant passes by a bank of eerily ticking clocks that show the number of people who die of worldwide maladies each minute.  

Then it’s time for the participant’s consultation.  

At a table at the rear of the truck, he describes his symptoms to Annie Whitehouse, a volunteer nurse with Doctors Without Borders. Whitehouse has spent the last year in the Republic of Abkhazia, which broke off from Georgia in the ’90s and is feeling the effect of the breakup of the former Soviet Union and years of civil war.  

Annie tells the participant that his prognosis is good if he keeps taking the pills. However, there is a catch. He has to stay in the hospital for six months. (The TB bacilli is spread most often through coughing or sneezing.) And the hospital is 15 miles away. 

“We’re dealing with medicines where the length of treatment is too long... what happens usually, is that they start the treatment, and then they stop it,” Whitehouse said. 

Brigg Reilley, an epidemiologist from Los Angeles, explained, “The problem we’re looking at with malaria and tuberculosis is that the main drugs are decades old – no new TB drugs have been developed in 30 years. Drug companies are going where the money is... drugs like Viagra and Rogaine. As a result, we’re worse off than we were in infectious diseases 10 years ago.”  

This is what the organization calls the “10/90 disequilibrium.” Doctors Without Borders statistics show that only 10 percent of global health research is devoted to conditions that account for 90 percent of global disease.  

Maria Vargas, a 17-year old senior at Ukiah High School, hopes to become a pediatrician. She is on campus visiting the UC Berkeley School of Medicine, and the exhibit opened this prospective doctor’s eyes. 

“I heard of this disease before but I never knew how bad it was,” she said. “We have to get the pharmaceutical companies aware that we need new medicines for these people.”