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Development

Doctor Reaches Tibetan Plateau

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/12/28; December 28, 2003.]

Cochrane Times, Wednesday 24 December
By Samara Cygman

A Cochrane doctor weathered altitudes of 14,000 feet, exposure to potentially fatal diseases and having to drink yak-butter tea for one month to deliver desperately-needed health care, vitamins and education to locals in one of the most isolated regions in the world-the Tibetan plateau.

Dr. Bill Hanlon, family physician at the Cochrane Medical Clinic, returned home Dec. 6 from his Tibet Child Nutrition and Multi-drug Resistant Tuberculosis project, where he and an American colleague, Dr. Nancy Harris, worked on improving the nutritional and general health status of the children of Tibet by introducing a western approach.

"They have a huge problem with nutrition, poor sanitation, poor hygiene, a lot of problems with infectious diseases, problems with Ricketts-a lack of vitamin D and calcium so people get stunted in growth and a lot of developmental problems. We saw a lot of stunted children, well below their ideal weight and height, many with thin, discoloured hair, thin limbs and protuberant bellies," recounted Hanlon.

"Those are conditions we don't see much here anymore. We helped deliver visual charts with a balanced nutrition message, a hygiene message and ways to recognize symptoms of tuberculosis and treatment options."

They even worked with a local musician to create a series of songs about hygiene and the importance of hand-washing and covering your mouth when you cough.

By the hundreds, children filed past Hanlon, afflicted with illness ranging from inactive thyroid glands-causing goiter in the neck, chronic diarrhea, pneumonia, measles and tuberculosis.

"Tuberculosis was an area I was interested in. They have a lot of resistant tuberculosis to a lot of medicines we use," said Hanlon, adding a lack and improper use of medicines have resulted in the resistant strains of TB. "But it is one of the most treatable infectious diseases in the world."

Which is what he found about most of the illness he saw. Not only treatable illness, but entirely preventable illness, ran rampant through the population.

"One man had a stroke and I was asked to see him. He had a very high blood pressure and it was sad because it was totally preventable," said Hanlon, who worked with the 70-year-old every morning to get his blood pressure down. "He and his family are very gracious and kind, insisting I have some tea. Yak-butter tea is very much an acquired taste," he laughed, adding it was salty, and likening it to warm soup.

Protecting himself against infectious diseases was "a bit of a challenge". He had to get shots for rabies, diphtheria, tetanus, Hepatitis A and B and Typhoid.

Hanlon tries to go on this kind of "vacation" (as he jokingly called it) at least once a year, with all the funds coming out of his own pocket.

"I've always had an interest in this and it helps balance the life we have here with the rest of the world," he said.

To help deal with the illness and disease Hanlon and Harris handed out multi-vitamins, nutritious food, medicine and information to almost everyone that came to see them.

"The impact of small intervention is huge. It can have a huge impact on people's lives," said Hanlon, adding it was even more important than high-tech machines like MRIs.

His colleague, Harris, who has been living off and on in Tibet for 14 years, was published in the New England Journal of Medicine when she found out 60 per cent of the children she saw had Ricketts.

To combat this disease, mainly caused by a vitamin and protein deficiency, Harris had a local plant, Droma, analyzed in the United States and found it worked as a high-protein supplement. It was ground up into flour and distributed amongst the families.

"The problem with people is they don't have enough variety in their diets," said Hanlon, adding they mainly eat high carbohydrate, low protein diets that are also low in fruit and vegetables.

"But depending on the season, their access to fruit and vegetables is sporadic at times." To help the people on a more permanent basis, Hanlon was proud to announce his new federally-registered Basic Health International Foundation.

The foundation aims to support public health and primary health care programs in high-need, remote locations and more specifically, high-altitude locations.

"I love the mountains, so it's an area of interest," said Hanlon, adding the registered charity took almost a year to set up. "This is just another stage in getting ongoing commitment to that area."

His intent is to keep the foundation small-to incur less administrative costs-and accountable and self-sustaining by the population it serves.

A web site will be up and running in the new year.

"Tibetans are a wonderful group to be with. I very much enjoyed their humour, sense of compassion and spirit of giving," said Hanlon. "At this festive time of taking trips to the mall and holiday parties, perhaps we can think a little more on those in greater need."


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