Malnutrition plays a major role in the deaths each year of 6.6 million children under 5 years of age, a global health expert told Creighton University premed students Tuesday.
Inadequate nourishment renders the children unable to fight off pneumonia, diarrhea, infections and malaria, said Dr. Christopher Elias, a Creighton alum who now is president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's global development program. Elias cited nutrition as the biggest challenge facing global health initiatives.
Elias, who earned his bachelor's and medical degrees at Creighton, said one reason nutrition is so challenging is that leafy vegetables aren't available in the dry, hot conditions of Mali, Chad and some other countries of Africa.
Another reason is that in some cultures, men eat first, children second and mothers last, which means pregnant women are poorly nourished, hindering fetal development. He said a person is stunted for life after enduring malnutrition from conception to 2 years of age.
Elias, 56, told his Creighton audience of 150 that he was a medical student at Creighton when an opportunity came along that carried him to his career in global health.
Georgetown University had a program in which medical students spent a couple of months in a refugee camp on the Cambodia-Thailand border. Georgetown had some open slots and requested Creighton medical students.
Elias was among those students. He was struck by poverty's impact on the refugees and also by the rare diseases they suffered. “It was the first time I'd ever left the country,” he said.
He returned to that area for two years after completing his medical residency program.
To get the most out of such experiences, he said, medical students need to not only work hard, but also to have sensitivity and humility. A two-month stint providing medical relief in an impoverished place won't profoundly change that place, he said, but it should change the student.
“The ones who were the best weren't the smartest kids in the class,” he said of his experience in Thailand. The best had integrity and were humble and open to letting the experience enrich them, he said.
Today's students have access through the Internet to numerous international opportunities offered by universities and organizations, he said. They don't have to rely on a break like the one he got.
But he was startled a couple of years ago when he observed students and workers at a relief program on the border of Thailand and Myanmar providing diligent service during the day, then returning to their rooms and spending the evening on Facebook and other social media. “It really is important to be there when you're there.”
Before joining the Gates Foundation two years ago, Elias headed PATH, a Seattle-based nonprofit group dedicated to improving global health. Before that, he was with the Population Council, also an organization dedicated to global health and development.