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Writers Without Borders: Making Stories Available and Accessible

Omar Khan, MD, MHS '97

Omar Kahn Writing and global public health seem like a natural fit: we write grants, papers, presentations—and with all our travel, we write to those at home with updates, whether detailed or simply, "Arrived. Love you."

Yet we have not given voice to many within our field, and within our spheres of work. That includes the disempowered, who frequently have nothing but their voice to offer. It also includes those at the other end: health professionals doing important, even ground-breaking work- yet don't (or can't) communicate it to a broader world.

Some years ago, my friend and now collaborator, the NPR commentator Tim Brookes and I were asked to write about the impending danger of SARS- to communicate to an American public largely unaware of what was going in Southeast Asia. What started off as an essay turned into a book. This led to other non-fiction narratives, such as the acclaimed 'The End of Polio?' in which we traced the eradication of a disease through the dusty byways and vulnerable open spaces of war-torn Afghanistan and the now-infamous part of Pakistan (Abbotabad) where Bin Laden was found.

More than our own work—teaming a medical doctor and an author—Tim and I were struck by the fact that all our colleagues had even better stories to tell. Whether discovering a new reservoir for Nipah virus, to tracking an outbreak of Chikungunya disease, to recounting the human suffering behind a cholera outbreak, these were encounters and accounts which we wanted to help publish; to literally ‘make public.’ That was the start of our non-profit, Writers Without Borders (WWB).

What does any of this have to do with technology? Well, when I started at SPH, the extent of connectivity was limited to our email—PHNET. Science—very good science—was carried out, yet it was constrained by the medium; the cold and formal words of a DOS-based system. Social media changed all that. WWB does most of its work online, with occasional on-site workshops. Tim’s blog site—such a concept never existed a decade ago!—houses an extensive collection of his and others’ work on this topic, and we have set up others as well. An author in Bangladesh can be in touch with a reader, editor or collaborator in Boston in a matter of minutes. We have a Facebook page, blogsites, websites for writing submissions, and an email address. We can attach text and images, we can edit on the fly, we can even produce a virtual e-book as we are doing with one of our groups in South Asia this month.

In a recent textbook on public health, we were asked to write about our work and link ‘formal’ scientific writing to this idea of informal yet accurate science writing. Of course we did it all online, from author permissions, to online collaborations, to Skype chats about the book. That’s the way we work with our WWB colleagues as well. It’s a long way from PHNET, but in a way it’s the same; it’s still Public Health, and it’s still the Net- just a lot more accessible and available to those outside the walls. And isn’t that the point when you’re trying to save lives, millions at a time?

Omar Khan was inducted as President of the Delaware Academy of Family Physicians in May 2011. His clinical practice is in Wilmington & Newark.

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