In a Philadelphia convention hall packed with scientists, clinicians, and advocates specializing in the prevention of infectious diseases in poor settings, Dr. Louise Ivers was honored by the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene as the 2011 recipient of the Bailey K. Ashford medal. The award, which recognizes distinguished work in tropical medicine, was presented by PIH co-founder Dr. Paul Farmer.

“For more than eight years, Dr. Ivers has worked in Haiti, leading efforts to implement health and social justice programs, expand clinical services, conduct pioneering research, and respond to the 2010 earthquake and ongoing cholera outbreak,” wrote Farmer in his nominating letter. “To say that she has distinguished herself in the field of tropical medicine does not begin to do justice to her extraordinary skill as a clinician, researcher, educator, and mentor.” Farmer drew parallels between Ivers' career and that of Dr. Bailey K. Ashford, the clinician for whom one of the awards is named. Ashford was deeply involved in organizing the medical response to a devastating hurricane that struck in Puerto Rico in 1899.

The award was presented at the ASTMH 60th annual convention.

Farmer’s keynote: investments and health equity

In his keynote address, Farmer spoke about the innovative thinking and structural changes needed for advancements in health equity in resource-poor settings.

“Think of the impact we can have when we link our understanding of improvements in people’s lives to policy endeavors that can change the lives of millions,” said Farmer. “The question is how we can build consensus in the scientific community and among our allies, and how we can build coalitions to pull those policy levers more effectively.”

More than treating instances of infection, international organizations must partner with governments to address the root causes of disease, continued Farmer. “If we do not invest in municipal water systems, there will be major outbreaks of waterborne disease.” The cholera epidemic in Haiti stands as one grim example. As of November 24, there had been almost 514,000 cases and nearly 7,000 deaths attributed to the cholera outbreak in Haiti.

Even before the 2010 earthquake, the lack of investment in municipal water systems foreshadowed disaster. In fact, Haiti is the most water-insecure country in the hemisphere if not the world, he added. This is in part due to the “cynical manipulation of foreign aid,” which derailed water projects in 2002 and 2003.

“How long does it take to build public water systems with governments? It takes a long time. We don’t have a long time.”

Dr. Farmer also discussed a 100,000 patient (200,000 dose) pilot cholera vaccination campaign targeting vulnerable populations in both Port-au-Prince and rural communities near the town of St. Marc, where the outbreak first began. The project, slated to begin in early 2012, is a collaborative effort of PIH, the Haitian nonprofit GHESKIO, and Haiti’s Ministry of Health.

Read Katherine Harmon's article from the conference, "Paul Farmer's Prescription for Restoring Health in Haiti--and Beyond," published on Scientific American's website. 

Farmer’s talk was also covered by John Donnelly in his article, “Farmer: It’s all about health equity,” and Meredith Mazzotta’s article, “Paul Farmer on building up Haiti – a long-term investment”.