July 26, 2012
By Megan Pelter
Oxford University, the oldest University in the English speaking world, is a hub of intellect and a once in a life time experience. Medieval buildings stand shoulder to shoulder with modern structures and create a landscape where excellence of academia comes together with the universe of science and Harry Potter world. Coming to Oxford has been a surreal experience for me. I joined a group of 20 students from USC for a Global Health course this summer. Throughout the campus there are jewels of world heritage; the Bodleian Library, Christ Church college, the architectural masterpieces of the Sheldonian theatre and Radcliff Camera, the botanical gardens and so much more. We have visited these places, including a weekend trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon – Shakespeare’s birthplace. The course is a premed course taught by Oxford professors that brings to us the understanding of serious health issues facing the world. We are learning from some of the best scientists in the field of health prevention and global health. Looking up at the dreaming spires that stand proud and tall in the sky, I truly realized how lucky I am to attend a class at a university such as this. However, as we continuously learn in class, not everyone has the same opportunities that we have.
The classes have not only fascinated me, but also caused me to realize the full extent of the problems behind many of the epidemics that run rampant in the world. Most of it does not even have to do with medicine directly, but more with social, political and economical standards of poor countries in the world. It has a lot to do with the cultural beliefs and the dominance of community understanding and traditions. One aspect in particular was the focus on malnutrition. Malnutrition is a general term to describe the inadequate intake or variety of foods. Deficiency can be macro (fats, carbohydrates or protein) or micronutrients (vitamins). About one in ten people on earth suffer from chronic malnutrition, and are predominantly in developing countries. These countries already struggle with productivity and economic related concerns. Malnutrition adds to this problem through increase health care burden, decreased productivity from bodily growth retardation and reduced mental and physical functioning. It also contributes to many diseases. As Dr. Rai, a Rhodes Scholar who researches HIV said, “malnutrition is like HIV; it weakens the immune response and allows infections to spread.”
Though I had known that malnutrition had severe consequences, I had not realized the full extent of its deadliness. Dr. Sullivan’s (The head of pediatric department, gastroentologist and a professor at the Magdalen College at Oxford) lecture on malnutrition also demonstrated how lack of food and supplies can cause the deaths of thousands of people. “Care”, he said, “starts before birth. If the mother is underweight and cannot get the vitamins needed for the fetus, the child is more likely to die young, grow up deformed, or vulnerable to opportunistic infections.” One of these deficiencies which contribute greatly to neurological disorders is iodine deficiency. These disorders can result in; miscarriages, prenatal mortality, congenital abnormalities, mental retardation, deafness and others. What is astonishing is that the main treatment of these complications is adding iodine to table salt (universal salt iodization). The cost of this is less than five cents per person per year! There can be relatively simple cures for malnutrition, such as iodizing salt, supplying iron tablets, promoting breastfeeding, prenatal care and much more.
These are very simple things that can have a huge impact. The question is if these solutions are so simple, why isn’t anyone doing anything about it? Why spend so many millions of dollars on providing treatment for diseases that can be prevented by good nutrition?
These questions will continue to revolve in my mind as we continue to explore Oxford University. Though I am very much enjoying my time at Oxford, I will still continue to think about all the things we have learned. And, when I have returned to the US, where, as Dr. Sullivan says, I will never have to truly worry about where (and when) the next meal will come from, I will think about this class and remember all the things that I have learned here.
Megan Pelter is a senior majoring in Biology.