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Review: Harvard Global Health Conference (Day 2)

Now, on to the second day of the Harvard Global Health and Leadership Conference! If you’ve been keeping up on my blog, you’ll know that last week, I attended this conference hosted by Harvard College. This year’s conference was held from May 22-23, 2021, and it was held virtually through Zoom. While last year’s conference was free, this year’s conference had a small fee of around $15-20, although they have a financial aid program for students. One aspect that I didn’t remember that we had from last year’s conference was the care package that they planned to send out. I haven’t received my package yet, but they said it would include a conference t-shirt and some other items. Anyway, read on to learn about my experiences at the Harvard Global Health and Leadership Conference, and whether or not the conference is worth it!

Image Credits: @harvardcollegevision

Jordan Topoleski – Harvard College Effective Altruism

Effective Altruism uses evidence and reason to find out how to do the most good in the world, so to begin, Jordan discussed the statistics about global poverty, factory farming, climate change, biological pandemics, ocean acidification, and more. We saw this in an example about education in East Africa, where he asked, “Which works best to increase the amount of time girls spend in school?,” as education levels are correlated with income levels, mortality rates, and more. We voted for the most effective strategy that was determined by finding the maximum additional years of schooling that girls had for each dollar spent. I voted for merit scholarships, but surprisingly, the strategy of informing parents of the benefits of education received 21 additional years of schooling per $100.

By using Effective Altruism, we can use analysis and reasoning to find a way to make the greatest impact on the world. There are three ways to evaluate how impactful a cause will be. First is scale, which is to determine how many people are impacted. Second is tractability, which is how easy is it to make progress? For example, some issues may take 10 years of research, so this may not be the most effective problem for students to solve. Third is neglectedness, which is how many people are focused on this issue? Is there already billions of dollars dedicated to this cause? By having a high impact career or doing charitable giving, this is one way to do good in the world.

I really enjoyed this club presentation, especially since I was particularly interested in the club activities and values. The speaker was very well spoken, and with the short introduction to the club today, I think it’s a great way to incorporate scientific research and analysis into altruism in the world. However, I’m still curious as to how college and even high school students are able to contribute to these important issues, as like they mentioned, often times the tractability of an issue seems to be beyond the scope of what students can accomplish, so I’m interested in hearing more about what activities the chapter at Harvard have to reach their goal.

“When HCEA was founded in 2012, our activities consisted of occasional meet-ups to discuss EA ideas. In just three years, HCEA has ballooned into a prominent student organization. HCEA runs a series of highly-attended public talks, a selective fellowship program on philanthropy, reading groups on specialized topics, innovative research, and an online blog.”

The New Social Movement of our Generation: Effective Altruism, Harvard Political Review
Image Credits: @harvardcollegevision

Julia Catherine Welsh and Caroline Kremer – Representative for Harvard MEDLIFE

MEDLIFE is a global health organization that works to support low-income communities, and it stands for Medicine, Education, and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere. They work directly with communities to meet their specific concerns instead of just making assumptions about what the communities need. They also have annual service trips where volunteers help development projects and cultural events, while shadowing local physicians at pop-up clinics. Patients that require specific medical care will have access to medical care for years after the mobile clinic in the MEDLIFE Follow-Up Program. During the pandemic, MEDLIFE provided food packages and community soup kitchens as a part of their Moving Mountains initiative. Some of the activities that the Harvard MEDLIFE chapter do include fundraising events, volunteer works, hosting speakers, and social events. In the upcoming years, they hope to help vaccine distribution, food security, and job security.

After the talk from MEDLIFE, we moved onto hearing the presentations for the community pitch project. The group projects that were presented include improving mental health through peer mentoring, virtual concerts to combat senior isolation, and bringing internet and devices to students. As for the individual projects, students had projects providing free STEM education to elementary students, setting up sanitary pad banks in rural areas, and preventing opioid addiction by using a device that controls the amount of drugs delivered.

Image Credits: @harvardcollegevision

COVID-19 Vaccine Program Update: A Conversation with Dr. Sarah Oliver

Dr. Sarah Oliver – CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer

As a college student, Dr. Oliver was very interested in biology, so she decided to major in biology and then moved on to medical school. After medical school, she was confused about her career options, but she decided to do her pediatric residency. But when she decided to take her Master’s in public health, she realized that epidemiology was her passion.

With her current work on COVID-19 and vaccines, she described that mRNA vaccines work by providing instructions for building the spike protein, which allows the immune system to gain immunity to that protein. She also cleared up the fact that mRNA vaccines cannot integrate into the DNA of a human, since your DNA is protected by the nucleus and the mRNA is not able to reach the nucleus. Since the discovery of the vaccines, we have vaccinated millions of people, with an upwards trend every week. In fact, around 3 million people are vaccinated daily in the United States, which is very impressive!

Even after the vaccine has been authorized, the FDA and CDC closely monitors safety and side effects through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) and v-safe after vaccination health checker, which is a new smartphone-based monitoring program to report side effects and check in with vaccine recipients.

Currently, around 42-86% of people intend to get the vaccine, although some people have concerns over side effects, efficacy, risks, and the costs associated such as travel costs. To improve vaccine confidence, the CDC is now bringing vaccines to locations people can trust and get their questions answered. Dr. Oliver specifically works on the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which provides advice and guidance to the CDC and HHS to prevent vaccine-preventable diseases, and these policies will be approved by the CDC Director. She also stated the importance of bringing equal access to the vaccines to everyone, since proportionally more White adults have been vaccinated compared to the proportion of Black and Hispanic adults. When asked about what advice she would give to high school students, she said to pursue what you love, and continue to learn in order to open more doors.

After the talk from Dr. Oliver, we moved onto hearing submissions for the Case Study Competition. This year’s topic was regarding socioeconomic disparities caused by COVID-19, and students had three hours to write a policy brief on how to address the problem. Students talked about equalizing distribution of the vaccine or implementing universal healthcare systems.

Image Credits: @harvardcollegevision

Panel: Unique Health Policy Challenges of COVID-19

Dr. Mauricio Santillana Guzman – Researcher at the Computational Health Bioinformatics Program at Boston Children’s Hospital

Dr. Marc Lipsitch – Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health

Dr. Paul Biddinger – Director of Harvard School of Public Health and Vice Chairman for Emergency Preparedness in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital

Dr. Biddinger started out by highlighting the fact that COVID-19 is a pandemic, which means that the preparations were happening in real-time to make sure that the policies were effective. Dr. Lipsitch said that as terrible as the disease was, the symptoms of COVID-19 are usually visible, which allows scientists to track who the patient may have been in contact with. Compared to previous pandemic, having severe and visible symptoms means that scientists can determine whether or not an intervention worked. Dr. Santillana Guzman stated that as a mathematician, he wasn’t on the frontline of treating the pandemic directly, but he noticed how the differences in interventions between every local community made a huge impact on what eventually happened to the community.

When asked about how policy has changed throughout the course of this pandemic, Dr. Santillana Guzman said that the responses in each country was incredibly different, such as in Australia and New Zealand, where they devoted significant resources to controlling the pandemic. However, in the United States, Europe, and Latin America, governments failed to properly implement strategies to control the pandemic, and he believes that our individual freedoms should not overtake our responsibility to protect our neighbors. Dr. Lipsitch said that the impressive speed of vaccine distribution and development was in part due to a series of good investments by government departments, so even though many countries responded poorly to the pandemic, there were some highlights of the COVID-19 response in each country.

As for inequality, Dr. Biddinger summarized that the pandemic severely exacerbated all existing inequalities, whether that’s between countries or socioeconomic classes. He also highlighted the importance of collaboration during this time, and he said it was inspiring to see scientists and countries attempting to collaborate and share resources. The panelists stated that the main takeaway from the pandemic is the importance of a collaborative and apolitic response to future pandemics and disasters, as well as improved disease monitoring. They also recommended students to gain as much knowledge as possible about their discipline of interest, whether that’s immunology, virology, policy, or mathematics, with a widened perspective. Dr Santillana stressed the importance of being humble, since this allows you to take perspectives from others to increase your knowledge.

Image Credits: @harvardcollegevision

Social Determinants of Health in the Face of COVID-19 with Dr. Ingrid Katz

Dr. Ingrid Katz – Associate Faculty Director at Harvard Global Health Institute

Dr. Katz began by describing the current situation with vaccine distribution, and highlighted the stigma and blame associated with vaccine hesitancy. There are many factors to vaccine hesitancy, including broken trust and barriers to healthcare. In the United States and United Kingdom, there are striking differences in vaccine hesitancy between race and ethnicity. While in the United States there is an abundance of vaccines, it was found that 80% of people in low-resource places will not receive a vaccine in 2021. She also discussed the stigma regarding COVID-19, which may contribute to people being hesitant on getting vaccinated. Since stigma and inequality didn’t just suddenly arise due to the pandemic, it’s important to consider the root causes for this inequality during this time.

Dr. Katz was also incredibly well-spoken and humble, and with the talks today, I noticed one central theme about inequality. The pandemic has significantly exacerbated the inequalities faced by people, and this may be due to the difficulties in medical care access and pre-existing inequalities. As high school students, it seems hard to make a difference in the world, but many of these distinguished professionals have expressed their admiration for students today who are taking the actions to educate themselves and make a difference in their communities, building from these community actions to make a global impact.


So… What are my final thoughts about the conference?

I really enjoyed the Harvard College Global Health and Leadership Conference, and I’m so grateful that the students at Harvard were able to plan and work so hard to make this conference a reality. As I recently planned a conference event at my school, I know how much hard work goes into the event, and with so many speakers, I can’t even imagine how much work was involved to make sure everything went smoothly and perfectly.

While I did like the conference last year a little bit better, I think the reasons were because this year there were significantly less people (which I’m not sure why that is, last year, I absolutely loved the event and I knew many people did too. There was a cost of around $15-20 this year, which is still significantly less than most conferences, but I thought it was worth it for a conference with such distinguished people), so I didn’t get to socialize much with the other students. Last year, a big reason as to why I loved the conference so much was because of all the people I met. I’ve always felt like I had to pretend to fit in wherever I went, so when I met other students at the virtual conference last year, I couldn’t believe it when I met a group of students who were all passionate about medicine and within a few minutes, we were laughing together like we had known each other for years. There was also an incredibly supportive community as well, so this year, with a smaller group, we didn’t have the same community like we had last year.

As for the speakers, I did like the talks from last year a bit more, especially the talk from Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, and his wife, Dr. Alice Chen, the founding leader of Doctors for America. On the first day of the conference this year, I was a bit disappointed with the talk from Forthcoming, since I felt that they were a bit disorganized and weren’t prepared to present, and it seemed like they hadn’t completely determined what the goal of their organization was. That might have caused me to make a bit of a negative connection with the speeches on that day, but by the time the speech from Dr. Marie Louise Jean-Baptiste and Dr. Claudine Moïse came around, I was completely fascinated with the conference and the speakers. I like how they engaged the audience and introduced us to the rich cultural heritage of Haiti, which really set up the stage for the rest of the talks later in the day, many of which involved philanthropic work or discussions on inequality in other countries. In fact, while I didn’t realize it then, Dr. Paul Farmer has had quite the career in providing medical care for impoverished countries. I was completely blown away by what unique and amazing experiences he had doing humanitarian work in Haiti when I searched him up, so I would recommend reading this article by The New Yorker to learn more about him.

I also loved hearing from the student speakers who represented and told us about their club. When I first attended the conference last year, I was so impressed by all of the accomplishments and passion they had for activism and making change, and this year was the same. In total, the Harvard Global Health and Leadership Conference was a great experience for me, and I would definitely recommend it for students who are interested in medicine and healthcare. This year, they did a did a good job of planning speakers and activities related to the theme, which was about global collaboration and vaccines. I learned so much about healthcare inequality everywhere, especially about the root causes of this inequality and how much of a difference students can make in the world, so this conference has been a fun and educational opportunity for me!

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