Local Kids Impact World Health: Expo Highlights Efforts

by Naomi Lowenthal; photos by Philipa Wharton,

(March 23, 2005) “This is very emotional for me,” said Dr. Jean Janin, Chief Medical Officer for the Elimination of Sleeping Sickness for the World Health Organization. “I remember when you first contacted me you were very small, now you are big.”

The “you” he was referring to were the 15 seventh-grade students who as third-graders founded Kids for World Health (KFWH), an organization dedicated to helping eliminate sleeping sickness in Africa. Their efforts culminated Wednesday night at the Hommocks in the first Kids for World Health Expo — “An Evening for Life.”

More than 500 members of the Larchmont and Mamaroneck community attended the event. They started the evening with the interactive “Wheel of Misfortune” where participants could “win” symptoms of one of five neglected diseases (including sleeping sickness) and learn about their possible treatment or cure. Then attendees were ushered into the auditorium to the sound of African drumbeats (played by students Geoff Miles and Alex Place). Annie Pope and Audrey Owens read original poems inspired by the plight of those in Africa. They were followed by a film by Brad Garfield that documened the efforts of KFWH. The film showed a trip the students made to Washington to meet with Senator Hillary Clinton and Representative Jan Schakowsksy and included a special audio message to the kids from Senator Clinton telling them their “message had been heard.”

The students discussed how they learned that the standard treatment for sleeping sickness was a drug made from antifreeze and arsenic that is very painful when administered and sometimes fatal. They expressed their outrage when they learned that a safer drug had been developed but had been taken off the market because it was not profitable. That same drug was later revived when it was discovered that it removed facial hair and was profitable when marketed for that purpose. Yet, it wasn’t being distributed to the populations that needed it for sleeping sickness.

The students began a letter writing campaign, and as Dr. Janin indicated later in the evening, “The pharmaceutical industry is responding. Thanks to the efforts of these students and others, Bristol Myers Squibb is now supplying drugs free of charge to combat sleeping sickness for all of Africa. The company is not only supplying drugs but along with Bristol Myers Squibb and Bayer is providing additional money to get it to people and the disease is decreasing." The problem of neglected disease is one of human rights, not technology,” said Dr. Janin. “Of course, we need money, but what we need more importantly is awareness. These young people have said it is not acceptable that children are dying of curable diseases.” He thanked the KFWH students and concluded, “You are the future. Maybe one day some of you can take my seat.”

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The students were not ready to take Dr. Janin’s job, but they did present him with a check for $20,000 to fund a KFWH pediatric wing and school for patients in the Sudan. The students raised the funds by holding bake sales, selling bracelets and soliciting donations.

Dr. Janin was followed by Dr. Jill John-Kall, from Doctors without Borders, who said she witnesses poverty and civil strife daily in Uganda. “There is very little hope,” she said. But, the members of her organization “feel the support of KFWH and are grateful. Maybe things can change.” Her thoughts were echoed by Dr. Chris Schoenfeld, an entomologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases. “It’s wonderful to hear a message of hope when you usually hear a message of despair,” he said.

The kids received further congratulations in letters from former President Bill Clinton and from Bill and Melinda Gates, read by Mamaroneck Superintendent Dr. Sherry King.

Kay KobbeThe evening concluded with remarks by Chatsworth teacher Kay Kobbe. In 2000, her third graders were studying Africa when one of the students saw a “60 Minutes” piece on sleeping sickness, and the class learned that millions of people were dying from a disease that was completely curable. They decided to do something about it and founded Kids For World Health. Ms. Kobbe, who received a standing ovation, reminded the audience, “All people deserve a chance. In spite of all our differences we share our humanity.” Fittingly, she was followed by the Hommocks and Chatsworth Choirs, led by Omar Rodriguez, singing “Walk in Peace.”

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The founders of Kids For World Health are Sarah Comerford, Graham Crawford, Jake Feinman, Ryan Gerspach, Sam Gruppo, Will Jacobs, Mairon Maldonado, Meghan Marr, Corinne McCrum, Harry Netzer, Rachel Rabinowitz, Peter Stoll, Eric Strumwasser, Anetta Urmey and Emily Wharton. Their work continues as they meet regularly at Hommocks on Wednesday afternoons. In addition to the Hommocks chapter, Kids For World Health has chapters at Chatsworth and at the High School. There are also chapters at Chatham Middle School in New Jersey and the Miami Dade County School system has started chapters within its district. For further information or to learn how to support Kids for World Health, please visit their website www.kfwh.org.