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Stone makes net gains against malaria

Jessie Stone

As an extreme kayaker, Jessie Stone has danced on the wild waves of the Nile, but the most exciting moment of her life occurred on dry land when Soft Power Health Clinic opened. That day, Stone launched a small yellow clinic designed to provide affordable medical services to the people of Uganda.

The clinic was one of four essential elements to Soft Power Health’s battle against malaria, Stone told the audience in Perella Auditorium Wednesday, Oct. 3. Soft Power Health’s other three cornerstones are education, data collection and prevention. Stone, the creator of Soft Power Health, was invited to speak by Joseph Perella ’64, a member of the Lehigh Board of Trustees.

Perella met Stone at a fundraiser for an outdoors camp for inner-city children, called Boys and Girls Harbor, where Stone spends her summers teaching children from New York City to kayak on the Hudson River. When Perella asked her what she did during the winter, Stone told him about Soft Power Health and her work in Uganda.

“I had strong interest in the way she lived her life, and she became good friends with my wife and I,” Perella says.

Lehigh President Alice P. Gast encouraged him to invite Stone to Lehigh.

“I find Dr. Stone incredibly inspiring,” Gast said in her introduction of Stone. “Her work is a tremendous example of how an individual can make an impact on the world.”

In 2003, Stone traveled to Uganda to “not necessarily tame the Nile, but to dance with it,” she said. In particular, she sought the “Nile Special,” a wave named after a potent local brew. “Once you surf a wave like this, you realize why it’s important to move to Uganda and never come back,” Stone said.

While there, two of her companions contracted malaria after only a few weeks in Uganda, causing Stone to wonder if the disease afflicted the local people.

To discover the effect of malaria, Stone visited families in the villages and learned that virtually no family was untouched by malaria.

Uganda, a country known for its lush countryside, rivers and pools provides the perfect breeding playgrounds for mosquitoes, including the Malaria-carrying species. The disease is considered endemic in 95 percent of the country and is responsible fore 70,000 to 110,000 deaths annually, according to the President’s Malaria Initiative: Uganda, 2007 Malaria Operational Plan. Young children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to malaria, and 30% of children in Uganda die each year from malaria.

Few Ugandans knew how malaria was transmitted or how to prevent the disease. Stone realized that with simple education and mosquito nets, she could reduce the burden of malaria. With this thought, she created Soft Power Health, a U.S.-based non-profit organization.

Stone and her team of volunteers educate Ugandan villages about the disease. Soft Power Health’s staff includes volunteers from the U.S. and six local Ugandans trained to teach about Malaria prevention. The team will travel to different villages and hold educational sessions in the village center. Soft Power Health volunteers teach about malaria, using giant poster boards depicting the parasite’s life cycle, songs, pamphlets and a demonstration on how to use mosquito nets.

A different type of net value

After the session, Stone and her volunteers sell nets treated with insect repellant for a nominal price of $1.80. “We want people to value the nets. If we put a value on them, so will they,” she said.

Later, volunteers will visit customers’ homes to ensure the nets are hung properly and to collect data on malaria incidence. Over 70% of those who buy nets use them, and because the disease-carrying mosquitoes bite only during the night, few people contract malaria.

Soft Power Health Clinic, which opened in January 2006, treats malaria and other common diseases. Uganda doctors and nurses run the clinic, which uses solar power for its energy and filtered rain for water. The clinic teaches people to prevent malaria, but also provides AIDS education and family planning. Unlike most medical facilities in Uganda, the clinic has its own pharmacy and provides a “one-stop-shopping” for medical needs, Stone says.

What does Stone do when she’s not selling nets, teaching about parasitic diseases or working in the clinic? “It’s good to get out on the river and cool off,” Stone says, showing a picture of her riding the “Nile Special.”

Caroline Clifford, director of University Events, helped orchestrate Stone’s visit and believes that she will inspire students.

“Stone’s visit reinforces Lehigh’s international emphasis,” Clifford says. “Hopefully she will plant a seed for students to go abroad.”

Stephanie Huiza ’10, was required to attend by her Earth and Environmental Science course, which is studying parasites and diseases. Huiza was deeply affected by Stone’s story. The lecture personalized the course material and inspired Huiza. “She’s gone so far and is committed to helping people,” she says. Huiza enjoyed the lecture so much, that she decided “I will probably go to more of these.”

--Becky Straw

Posted on Thursday, October 04, 2007

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