Global health through the lens of a social scientist

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Published on The Badger Herald on May 2, 2016

When the deadly Ebola epidemic broke out in West Africa in 2014, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency. Groups of global health experts marched to the frontline, a University of Wisconsin scientist was one of them.

Sarah Paige, assistant scientist at UW’s Global Health Institute and advocate for global health, responded to United States Agency for International Development’s call for help. She spearheaded an effort to create a research proposal, which later became the Ebola Survivor Corps, a community outreach program to address the outbreak.

Ebola Survivor Corps

The project was crowdfunded through Indiegogo. Together with scientists from Seattle, Madison and New Orleans, Paige raised $15,000 on the site as well as other diversified sources of fundraising. That’s when the situation got real for her, Paige said.

“This sort of really large initiative puts the pressure on us to make something real,” Paige said. “Because we have so much money that we raised, we need to do something real with it.”

After building a solid financial foundation, Paige’s team recruited five Ebola survivors from Sierra Leone to work in a large but under-populated local district. The survivors worked on community health outreach and mobilization by hosting community meetings, visiting local schools and educating district leaders on the importance of community health practices, Paige said.

During a measles outbreak in January and February, the survivors worked with the health sector to mobilize people towards a vaccination campaign and teach them health knowledge, from hand washing to the difference between measles and rubella, Paige said.

“They’re doing really active community health education on very basic public health practices,” Paige said. “Because they’re project managers in the health sector, they’re also able to be responding to outbreaks.”

Survivors with the experience of being sick and recovering have a more unique and relatable approach to providing health education and inspire other people to be healthy, Paige said.

The project went full force in January, but Paige said she is not currently looking to expand to other districts because she wants to refine the work first and make it a really comprehensive approach. She wants to make sure the survivors corp she is working with right now have the literacy to effectively report the situations of the communities.

“We’re working on the tweaking as we go,” Paige said. “How can we leverage the experience of survivors to make sure this doesn’t happen again, to elevate survivors and their stories, to address some of the stigma and social trauma around the types of illness and then also to be a partner and to work with the survivors and providing community outreach.”

Global health through the lens of social scientist

The Ebola Survivor Corps is only one of Paige’s many endeavors to improve the state of global health. Since her undergraduate years she said she wanted to embark on a career where she can care for people and humanity.

After a year working in a hospital, Paige said she realized being a doctor is the last thing she wanted to do, so she spent time switching jobs, trying to see what the world is really like. She found her passion for global health during her travels.

“I really appreciate being in another part of the world, and I wanted to tie that interest with global health,” Paige said.

After getting her master’s of public health degree from John Hopkins University and doctoral degree in health geography at University of Washington, Paige came to University of Wisconsin to work with the Global Health Institute and pursue a postdoctoral degree, studying the interaction between humans and animals in terms of disease transmission.

Besides Ebola Survivor Corps, Paige also works on multiple other projects, including UW’s Kibale EcoHealth Project, a long-term investigation that taps into the health and ecology in Kibale National Park, Uganda. She studies the communities that live on the periphery of the park, focusing on the health of people and livestock there.

Paige said her focus is on working with communities that are on the frontlines of potential spillover activities, communities that are most vulnerable and most likely to be the places for disease pop up.

Paige said media often portrays these communities in a negative light, and other NGOs give condescending messages to communities with the problem, which made her feel it was time for her to act.

“I’m a social scientist with expertise in community engagement, community understanding, and I felt I have something to offer,” Paige said. “If we want to really prioritize health system around the world, community outreach and engagement within those health systems is a must, that’s the foundation to a strong health sector.”

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