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Alumni Notes

Data, Loud and Clear

By Christine Grillo

Adam Richards will make yet another visit this December to the borders of Burma, where he will train the intrepid health workers known as backpack medics. Moving among the camps for displaced ethnic minorities, he'll work with local community organizations to prepare the medics who cross the borders and risk their lives to provide health care for victims of the notoriously corrupt junta's 46-year-old system of abuse. (See feature story)

A few years ago, Richards, MD, MPH '04, helped to set up a malaria control program in Burma (where malaria is the number one killer) through Global Health Access Program (GHAP), a nonprofit group that trains locals to deliver health care in long-suffering ethnic minority areas. And last March, Men's Health magazine profiled his work in an article that allowed him to tell some of the country's health horror stories: young mothers with malaria, malnourished children languishing in overcrowded camps, families forced off their farms and into the jungles (where there are even more mosquitoes).

He knows how important it is for the world to hear these stories. But Richards feels that data speak loudly, too.

Traditionally, storytelling is the strategy of choice for human rights advocates. "Politicians respond to horrifying personal stories," says Richards. But storytelling has its limitations. "There are naysayers out there," he says, and anecdotal evidence is vulnerable to refutation.

Epidemiological tools, on the other hand, can convey quantitative, population-wide data that may be taken more seriously by decision makers. A trained epidemiologist and physician, Richards hopes that the data will speak in ways the stories have not. "Quantitative data provides yet another tool to urge policymakers."

Last year, a study by the researchers from GHAP and the School's Center for Public Health and Human Rights showed the risk of death among young Burmese children to be five times higher in households that reported multiple human rights violations such as forced labor, food destruction and displacement. The same households show higher odds of child malnutrition and malaria as well, compared to Burmese households experiencing no violations.

Other studies show that the Thai and Chinese who live near the Burmese border have significantly higher rates of malaria than the rest of Thailand and China. This data is important, says Richards, because now those governments have evidence that the Burmese junta's policies are becoming a problem for their own citizens, a fact that may spur them to respond. "We'd like to see governments take action based on our data," says Richards.

Currently a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Fellow at UCLA, Richards remains committed to his work in Burma. "I'm still learning a ton," he says. "Once you get involved in community organizations, once you're friends with those folks, and they request that you continue the partnership, then that's a very compelling reason to stay involved."

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