BY Andrea Sobolewski
This past summer, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in the West African country of Cameroon. It has always been a dream of mine to go to Africa, and when my good friend, Melissa Hewson, asked if I would be interested in coming on a medical mission trip, I immediately agreed. Our team was a small one, comprising of myself, Hewson, two nurse practitioners (including Hewson’s mother), a social worker, a passionate Cameroon native and her daughter. While Cameroon is not affected by HIV to the same extent as its sub-Saharan neighbors, the virus is still a large problem.
The majority of our time was spent in the beautiful village of Foumban, where we worked in a clinic, school and prison. Although Hewson and I were not medical professionals, we still completed a myriad of duties. We administered oral HIV tests, spoke to students and young prisoners about the effects and transmission of HIV and assisted in clinical patient care.
Working with the young students and prisoners was rewarding, but heart-wrenching. I had the pleasure of lecturing the students about STDs, which (thanks to my translator) proved to be easy, but it made the questions that followed difficult to answer. Many of the students had not heard of 75 percent of the STDs I mentioned and had not been previously educated about the basic transmission and prevention of HIV. Toward the end of the questions, one student raised his hand and asked me if it was true that the United States had the cure for HIV, withholding it from Africa, and giving them drugs that spread the illness. I, of course, told him this was not true, and that a cure has not been discovered, but there are medications that can greatly improve the quality of life with AIDS. He nodded his head but still looked skeptical as I glanced around the classroom it appeared that he was not the only one. Afterwards, I told them that we were offering free and voluntary HIV testing for all who were interested.
In a country where political corruption runs rampant, and one has to be careful whom he or she trusts, it is not surprising that the students would receive my response with skepticism. Even though there are anti-retroviral drugs that can greatly extend the life of a person affected by AIDS, they are expensive and difficult to provide to third-world countries.
During the student testing, many of them who could speak English asked if they could talk to me. I was thrilled as several of the young boys shared their life stories and asked questions about America. Many of them discussed dreams of going to the U.S. to lead a different life. I remember sadly thinking at the time that for the majority of them, this will never happen. One student in particular shared his desire to go to college in the U.S. I gave him advice on how to find colleges on the internet and various ESL programs that are available. We exchanged e-mail addresses, and I left with a promise to myself that I would do all I could to get him here.
The people of Cameroon were welcoming and unendingly grateful for all that we provided. While the majority live in poverty and suffer from illness, they are genuinely happy. As Hewson and I departed for the states, we both agreed that we had left a part of ourselves in Cameroon. Not soon after I returned, I discovered a video from a 2006 television news report of a Bayer’s AIDS scandal.
Exposed by MSNBC, Bayer Aspirin had been selling AIDS tainted medication to other regions of the world even though the drugs were off the market in the U.S. The scandal kept, and has continued to keep, a low profile making it difficult to thoroughly research. And even when I asked around, most people had not heard of it. The medication was an injection for hemophiliacs, and was given mostly to children. I was shocked to find that the FDA was aware that this had happened, and did nothing to investigate. Thousands of hemophiliacs consequently have died from the AIDS virus. It should be known that this is not the first report of drug companies selling HIV infected medications overseas simply to make a profit, and was a large problem in the ’70s and ’80s.
I immediately thought back to the student who asked me about the United States withholding medication and making people in Africa sick. I was appalled that this was partially true. It is horrific to think that in this day and age, in a country such as the U. S., there are companies who will still go to such ends in order to make a profit.
With World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, I will be thinking about the thousands of patients who were killed by the HIV infected injections, but more importantly I will be thinking about the students who spilled their hearts to me, and to all the people of AIDS ravaged countries who depend on the powers of the U. S. It is not enough to simply raise awareness. There is much to be done, and if we cannot trust the drug companies to do their jobs, then who can we trust?
Written on behalf of Amnesty International.
Sobolewski is a member of
the class of 2011.