Joint Harvard-Brazil program fights entrenched diseases

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Recently (Jan. 6-21), 15 Harvard and 16 Brazilian students participated in an intensive experience: the first Harvard-Brazil Collaborative Course on Infectious Diseases. The course, which was offered by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the Santa Casa de Misericórdia de São Paulo Medical School (FCMSCSP) with the support of the Harvard University Brazil Studies Program at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS), included lectures and informal discussions and visits to clinics, hospitals, laboratories, and community programs.

One of the most significant lessons learned by the students participating in the course is the number and variety of determinants of a disease. The format of the course allowed students to gain an understanding of the social, economic, political, and environmental factors as well as the biological origins of two specific diseases and the reasons for their persistence.

Following a week of lectures and site visits in São Paulo, students worked in small teams at field sites to develop, complete, and present specific projects related to one of two infectious diseases that remain endemic in Brazil, leishmaniasis and schistosomiasis.

“We were faced with the challenge of developing a research strategy that would lead to concrete and actionable recommendations for controlling schistosomiasis in two poor, rural villages. We had the opportunity to present our findings to the mayor, the secretary of health, and local health care providers who were quite receptive to our suggestions,” said Amie Shei, a doctoral candidate in the Health Policy Program at HSPH. “One of the strengths of this course was its truly collaborative nature. I believe that our group’s diversity — in terms of demographics, academic and professional experiences, and interests — enhanced all of our individual experiences. Our Brazilian classmates helped me better understand the complex set of factors that contribute to the persistence of these diseases.”

“We could see firsthand how the leishmaniasis control program fits together in practice. It was very helpful to see the real thing, not an idea, not just the theory,” said Danielle Bivanco de Lima, a Ph.D. candidate at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP). Josephine Hahn, a first-year doctoral student in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at HSPH, said “It was a tremendous opportunity to speak frankly with health care providers, researchers, residents, and those without homes about the disparate social, political, and economic realities of Brazil. Seeing various health care settings and interventions made clear not only what [the] problems are but also what solutions might exist.”

The University established a Brazil Office in 2006 to facilitate ties between Harvard and Brazilian academic and research institutions. The office supports Harvard faculty and students in their research, teaching, and learning.

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