Science Court will debate AIDS in Africa

by Lauren Gee | 4/20/01 5:00am

Addressing the highly charged issue of how the United States should respond to the AIDS epidemic plaguing sub-Saharan Africa, medical and ethics experts will debate the merits of intervention at a panel discussion later this month.

The panel, Dartmouth's second annual Student Science Court, will be hosted by the Human Biology Program and the Ethics Institute on April 28. It's part of the new Human Biology curriculum entitled Humanitates Vitae.

The event is an effort "to bring human biology to the undergraduate campus in an interdisciplinary mode," according organizer Dr. Lee Witters.

"The problem of HIV and AIDS is so huge in Africa and touches on so many faces of human existence that it seemed very timely to have an event around that."

Panelists from both Africa and the United States will discuss the controversies that have surrounded the outbreak of HIV/AIDS, a disease presently ravaging one-third of the population of eastern and southern Africa. Africa makes up 80 percent of the world's HIV cases.

According to Witters, the panelists "will touch on many faces -- medical research, ethics and political aspects -- of this catastrophe on the African continent."

Among those who will speak at the court is Catherine Wilfert, Medical Director of the Pediatric AIDS Foundation and a pivotal researcher and contributor to a developing public health policy aimed at preventing HIV transmission from mothers to infants.

Kisali Pallangyo, Dean of the Muhimbili University College of Health Sciences in Tanzania and the academic leader at an AIDS-heavy hospital, will also speak. Pallangyo has worked closely in the African campaign to improve understanding of the complexities of AIDS treatment.

Along with the medical angles being exposed by these and a variety of other panelists, speakers will also discuss what responsibility the U.S. has to try to improve Africa's AIDS crisis.

At the moment, a widely available treatment for HIV/AIDS does not exist. Issues specific to Africa, primarily those involving cost and infrastructure, exacerbate the difficulties of intervention.

Conditions in Africa are "in sharp contrast to the situation in the United States and other developed countries where multiple drug therapy is generally available," said C. Fordham von Reyn, Chief of Infectious Diseases Section at Dartmouth Medical School.

For this reason, Witters said, "We need to find an African solution. We don't feel that we can superimpose a system that has worked in the United States and expect to find a solution."

The views of Dartmouth undergraduate students will be recorded in a ballot distributed at the end of the event. The ballots from last year's court were sent to the National Institutes of Health.

From an organizational standpoint, the students' involvement will "rivet the attention and make them feel enfranchised in the voting," says Witters.

More crucially, von Reyn commented that "leaders from among current Dartmouth undergraduates may be in a position to play a real role in the future."

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