Friday, November 25, 2011

Medicine For Peace: The Past Twenty Years

In the early 1990s, I and a group of concerned individuals on Long Island (NY) began sending essential medicines to villages in war torn El Salvador. When the desperate health situation in Iraq – after the First Gulf War – reached the news, we decided to send a medical team to conduct a damage assessment. The report we produced, “Health Crisis in Baghdad”, worked its way to the Security Council of the United Nations, and our films of that assessment were televised world-wide. Following that trip, we formally founded Medicine For Peace. Our mission addressed the need we saw at the time, to assist women and children who were victims of war.

Our health teams remained in Iraq for five years, during the course of which we performed nutrition assessments, established a pediatric clinic in a Baghdad hospital, delivered more than a million dollars of pediatric drugs to needy clinics, and transported many children to the United States for life-saving surgery. In 1996, the Ba’athist Government expelled us from Iraq for reporting human rights violations. We were unable to return to the country until 2003, when we successfully re-established a health program and produced the first comprehensive health report after the U.S. invasion.

The experience we acquired in Iraq in the 1990s prompted us to turn our attention elsewhere, and in 1995 we sent a medical team to the Tuzla refugee camp in Bosnia. Survivors had fled to Tuzla from the massacre at Srebrenica, which was the worst human rights atrocity in Europe since the Second World War. For the next five years, MFP worked with Moslem mothers and children who had survived the ethnic cleansing of the town of Kozarac. Oslobodjendje, the well-respected Sarajevo newspaper, described our school-based mental health project as “a model of co-operation between American health workers and Bosnian women organizations.”

In 2001, we expanded our mission to assist women and children in rural Haiti. Over the last decade, MFP volunteers have persevered in Haiti through a political coup and the ensuing violence, through hurricanes Fay, Gustav and Hanna, the 2009 earthquake, the ongoing cholera epidemic, and most challenging, through the entrenched poverty and deprivation suffered by the Haitian people. Most recently, Medicine For Peace has joined with a coalition of women’s organizations to develop a women’s health initiative for the upper Artibinite region. The program is based at the Alma Mater Hospital in Gros Morne, with mobile units that travel to rural dispensaries. As of October 2011, we have screened more than 1,500 women for cervical and breast cancer (the leading cancers found in Haitian women), sexually transmitted infections, and a community education program to promote health This initiative, which is saving women’s lives, is one of the largest and most comprehensive on the Island, and a source of great pride for both Medicine for Peace and the Gros Morne community.

Our expertise caring for victims of war trauma and torture paved the way for the MFP Health Center for Torture Victims in Hyattsville, MD. Since November 2009, with our service partners, we have provided medical, psychological and social services to patients who have been tortured in other countries, primarily in Africa and Asia. MFP has We have taken an active role in the world-wide movement to abolish torture.

Over the past twenty years, we have been unwavering in our mission; in the process, we have learned that there is a critically important role for a small, focused, medical relief organization – provided it is bold and willing to undertake high-impact projects, often in areas where larger organizations are unable to negotiate. MFP’s success is a result of the courage and enthusiasm of our nurse and physician volunteers—often working at personal risk—and the financial support of our loyal donors, We have just begun and, with your help, there is so much more we shall do.

Michael V. Viola, M.D.