Saturday, March 24, 2012

Bob Vosatka: Eradicating Riverblindness, Kinnelon Library 4/12/12

Dr. Bob Vosatka, Kinnelon, NJ
I invite you to come to the Kinnelon Library on April 12, 2012 at 7pm, to hear Kinnelon neighbor Bob Vosatka bring to life his work eradicating Riverblindness in the Congo.

Here is the description of his presentation at the Kinnelon Library:

Destination Congo: Prelude to a Medical Revolution

Dr. Bob Vosatka will show slides of his trip to Lubumbashi, DR Congo via Nairobi, Kenya. He will bring us up to date on efforts toward the global eradication of several Neglected Tropical Diseases. 

As Medical Director for UFAR (United Front Against Riverblindness), Dr. Vosatka assists in efforts aimed at the eradication of Riverblindness, by facilitating the delivery of medications to a population of greater than 1 million people in the Congo.  

In anticipation of his presentation, I asked Bob a few questions. Here are his responses:

C.B.: Bob, what is your background? 

I am a physician, teacher and scientist.  My undergraduate degree was in physics and biochemistry.  I was lucky enough to get into NYU medical school, and even luckier to get  a full scholarship for the 8 year combined md/ phd program.  Following medical school I became board certified in pediatrics, neonatology and medical genetics, spending half my time in clinical practice, the rest as a professor doing research at Columbia University.  Following a long recovery from an injury in 1999, I turned to teaching at the high school level.  Currently, I teach and develop educational programs at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City.

C.B.: How long have you and your family lived in Kinnelon?  

We have lived in Kinnelon for 14 years.  As a child, I always wanted to live "in the country".   After going to school in Manhattan, I learned I love New York as well.  A good friend (who lives in rural Maine) once said: "You live more in the country than I do, and live closer to a big city: you have the best of both worlds".  I think she is right.        

C.B.: What do you like most about Kinnelon?  

Many things: the teachers and schools are great, my kids have had incredible experiences.  I love that I can what out my front door and hike in the woods for hours, seeing nothing but nature, great views and the occasional bear.  The Kinnelon Library has been the town center for my family.  The people are great, the collection is excellent, and the interlibrary loan services are nearly as good as those at a University library.

C.B.: You'll be speaking to us at the Kinnelon Library about River Blindness. What causes RiverBlindness? 

Riverblindness is a disease caused by a parasitic worm.  It is transmitted to people through the bite of a tiny blackfly that lives and breeds in rapidly flowing rivers.  It is found in equatorial regions of the world.  In some villages, as many as 90% of adults have gone blind from the disease.

C.B. How did you first get involved in eradicating River Blindness?

I got involved about two years ago.  Eradication of riverblindness was not on the agenda.  Through a long time friend, Dr Jeff Yuan (currently the Board Chair of UFAR, United Front Against Riverblindness), I was introduced to Dr Daniel Shungu, an American of Congolese descent and founder of UFAR.

Following his retirement from Merck Pharmaceuticals, he returned to his DR Congo, and asked how he could help.  In 2004, shortly after the end of the Congolese war, he began a program to control riverblindness by coordinating with the WHO (World Health Organization).

I was surprised to learn from Daniel that Riverblindness was limited to people and the flies that transmit the worm.  There was also an effective medication, Mectizan that, when given once a year, prevented progression of the disease in those who had it and prevented uninfected individuals from acquiring the disease.  In short, the disease (potentially) be eradicated, not just controlled. It just took the will to do it.

Recently, the groups that treat this and other NTDs (neglected tropical diseases) have taken on that challenge: riverblindness is on track for eradication, not just control.  Only one other disease has been eradicated from mankind: smallpox. Thus, my decision was a simple one: be part of a revolution in health care for a large part of the world's population, or do nothing.                  
C.B.: So, what do you do on behalf of UFAR?  

I am the Strategic Medical Director and Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors.  I will be Board Chair in a few months.

As Strategic Medical Director, I review policies and procedures to ensure patient safety for 1-2 million people in the Congo.  I also develop plans with other members of our organization, particularly Daniel Shungu, to coordinate our care to ensure that we remain on track to eradication and that we collaborate efficiently with other international organizations to eradicate. Lastly, I write grants and speak to others to ensure that the eradication effort is brought to completion.  Halting our effort prematurely is actually less costly than stopping.  Once eradicated, no one will need medication for this and several other eradication efforts.

C.B.: Share with us a sneak peak! What will you discuss at the Kinnelon Library on 4/12?  

I will bring photos and artifacts from my recent trip to the Congo and Kenya.  I will talk about the unique ecology of these area and how fragile they are.  To the best of my ability, I will discuss the economies in these areas and how they affect the lives of the people.  I will introduce the London Declaration on Neglected Tropical Diseases and how this global effort will change the developing world.

C.B.:  How might someone get involved?

I also work as a Malaria Griot.  In African culture, a Griot is storyteller.  I have joined with another NGO, Malaria No More to ensure that we can succeed in our eradication efforts for riverblindness by controlling malaria, a disease that cause death among a large percentage of children in the area we work.

There are many ways to get involved in the efforts.  UFAR needs people with many skills.  The best way to help is to help raise funds to support our efforts.  UFAR needs less than ten cents per year per person treated to eradicate riverblindness.  The medication is donated free by the manufacturer.  The WHO assists in coordination.  Without that dime, eradication efforts can fail.  We have seen areas in the Congo and elsewhere where funding became scarce, and the eradication efforts have fallen apart.  Individuals or groups can make a donation (>95% of our funds go to programatic expenses).  Our US staff and board are all unpaid volunteers.

C.B.: Tell us more.

We are currently seeking about a half million bed nets to prevent malaria which hampers our efforts in Northern Congo, on the Ugandan border.  I don't expect anyone to buy them for us, but by supporting Malaria No More, we can control malaria that threatens our riverblindness program in this area, and may one day place malaria on target for eradication as well.

Thanks, Bob! Having lived in West and Central East Africa, I am familiar with these diseases and applaud your passion for eradicating them. They have no place on this earth!

I wish you a fantastic event at the Kinnelon Library and tremendous success eradicating Malaria and River Blindness.

Readers, if you have any questions for Bob, please do share them in the comments or be sure to attend the event at the Kinnelon Library on April 12th.

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