Our nation’s budget should reflect our values, but President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget disregards a cherished value shared by all: the health of families and communities. The administration’s proposal reduces funding for the National Institutes of Health by 18 percent, would eliminate the NIH’s Fogarty International Center and decrease the budget for the Peace Corps by $12 million. Several wise Republicans and Democrats in Congress have vowed to push back against these cuts.
I’ve spent my whole life at home in communities where family values are central. I grew up in Carl Junction, Mo., where bluegrass harmony wins you a blue ribbon and wrestling is top dog. I mowed my aunt’s lawn and bucked hay for neighbors at 5 cents a bale. After college, I joined the Peace Corps in Mauritania, West Africa. There, in the rural community of Selibaby, family also comes first. We always ate around a communal bowl.
Now, years later, I again have strong ties to a community in West Africa where everybody is family. As I write this, I have been invited to have lunch with the host family of one of the local Peace corps volunteers — an honor that reminds me of a Mauritanian saying, “Osu kafun yani,” or “We are all together.”
Early in my partnership with Senegal, I learned from the Kedougou medical director that preventing cervical cancer was a priority. Therefore, we began to study the issue in this region where 12 physicians provide care for 163,000 people. Cervical cancer, a critical women’s health issue globally, is easily preventable. It is unjust that any community anywhere would have no access to screening.
Unfortunately, even in the U.S. there are populations with high cervical cancer rates. We are building knowledge in this West African rural setting that could foster the health of families everywhere, even in Carl Junction. Furthermore, we are working alongside the Peace Corps through an innovative partnership model in a manner that could pave the way for others to conduct future projects.
Our team’s work in Senegal is evidence of the best of what America stands for. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided funding, and recently the Fogarty Center awarded the project a five-year grant.
The historical impact of the public agencies with whom we work is undeniable. Since 1968, the Fogarty Center has had a footprint in over 100 countries, building knowledge by collaborating with the world’s leading scientists. Since 1961, the Peace Corps has sent volunteers to more than 141 countries. There is no measure for the benefit they have had on our global society.
We have much to lose far beyond our single project in Senegal. As a society, our families and communities — hence, our humanity — is the ultimate goal. We all work because there is meaning behind it. Not just in words but in actual, life-altering, honest-to-goodness meaning.
Now, as I sit in 107-degree temperatures preparing for a meeting with local public health workers, I am a long way from where I grew up, but in my heart I have never left. I am calling home, where I was educated in public institutions. I am calling all of you who believe in the health of a mother and in the care of all families and communities. Please urge our leaders to stand together for our values. “Osu kafun yani.”
Andrew Dykens, M.D., M.P.H., is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago and conducts research in Senegal, West Africa.