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Bangladesh and the Bird Flu


I got this SMS on my phone today, it reads:

“It is safe to eat properly cooked chicken meat and fully boiled or fried eggs even under bird flu situation – Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock”.

There is actually a concerted media effort, on the part of the government here in Bangladesh, to try and reduce the hysteria regarding eating eggs and egg products. I was also listening to Bangla-language radio earlier tonight and the DJ – in between songs – was quizzing people about which temperature people need to cook eggs in order for them to be safe enough to eat. He then gave a number where listeners could SMS their responses. I think there was a prize for a random person who got the answer right.

So what exactly is the bird flu? If anyone has ever lived in a dormitory, you know that when someone gets the flu – eventually everyone gets the flu. The bird flu is kind of like that – it is a very easy to catch and can infect both birds and human beings. The problem is that, unlike the kind of flu that you can easily recover from with some rest, the bird flu can be deadly. In fact, there is a particular strain called the H5N1 virus which is both very contagious and very deadly.

Why is bird flu a threat? Given how contagious and deadly H5N1 can be, many scientists believe that the next global pandemic will be caused by Avian Bird Flu. A global pandemic might be hard to imagine – because it has never happened in our generation. But it has happened quite frequently throughout human history. There was the Black Death caused by the Bubonic Plague in the Middle Ages, “the consumption” (aka tuberculosis) a few generations back, and the Polio Epidemics of the early 1900s.

Why don’t have a pandemic already? The reason we are safe for now is because germs take time to mutate. If you’ve ever wondered why, despite medical technology, we can’t cure the common cold – it’s because the cold virus keeps mutating. You might catch a cold several times during your life – but you probably have never been infected by the exact same virus twice. We have the advantage right now because, even though people can get sick from bird flu, they cannot pass it onto others. It’s not contagious between humans – only between birds and humans.

Why should you care? Bird flu was actually one of the topics that Dr. Sachs talked about during the Notre Dame Forum on Global Health. I talked about it as well – and included some clips from Dr. Sachs – in my video about Super Tuesday. Diseases don’t need passports. They can come into any country –  anywhere in the world. That’s especially true with a disease like bird flu – it can be brought into a country by migratory birds even if a country decides to seal its borders. The threat from Bird Flu dwarfs the threat from terrorism.

What does poverty have to do with this? Even though Bird Flu exists in North America, it is most likely that any Bird Flu pandemic would start here in Bangladesh. Why? Because, unlike North America – there isn’t that big a seperation between the urban and the agricultural. The eggs you buy from the supermarket were probably laid by a chicken over a hundred miles (or a thousand miles) away. In Dhaka, when you buy eggs – you can often see the chicken that it came from. People are in much closer contact to poultry and Bird Flu carrying animals than in North America.

People also have less access to health care. In order to avoid costly medical and clinic fees, most poor people here don’t go to the doctor unless they are on the verge of death. If they get infected with the Bird Flu (which would feel just like any regular flu) they are most likely going to try and tough it out (or try and treat it themselves). The poor are not only the first victims of global health issues – they are often the unfortunate incubators for diseases to mutate and grow.

It’s not just the health care system that is lacking here in the Third World. When a farmer in North America has a batch of birds which have Bird Flu – they can get reimbursed through insurance and/or government subsidies provided through tax dollars. When a poor farmer who has a few chickens and sells eggs is ordered to kill his birds due to the flu – he has no safety net: he’s out of business. And it’s usually the poor farmers that are at greater risk because they can’t afford all the equipment needed to keep things sanitary and clean.

It’s such a shame that, in a world where the rich countries are often pro-active in trying to eliminate potential threats from terrorism, we don’t often pay enough attention to equally important (or more dangerous) threats to our safety and security. I’m still waiting for a President to say “we have to fight bird flu over there, so we don’t have to fight bird flu over here”.

One Difference at a Time – The Follow-Up

Before (read my original article here):

PermaNet (Mosquito Net) Given to a Single Mother of Two

Five Months Later:

Five Months Later...

What’s Different?

  • Clothes – no more walking around shiverring and shirtless! (clothes provided by my aunt)
  • Schooling – the eldest son just graduated from Grade One! (school costs paid for by my mom, dad, and I)
  • No more insects and insect-bites! The PermaNet  I donated to them got rid of the cockroaches that used to crawl around their bed at night. It’s also protected them from being feasted upon by mosquitoes while they slept. (PermaNet donated to this project courtesy of Vestergaard Frandsen – they rock)
  • Can Study in the Dark – that windup flashlight I gave them still works and the eldest son uses it to study. My dad was worried that a five dollar camping flashlight from Wal-Mart wouldn’t be useful as long-term light source in the third world. Five months on, it’s still going on strong. LEDs and hand-cranked rechargable batteries rule!
  • Hungry no more! Malnutrition is a big problem here. And, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t eating meals. Rather, it means that people aren’t eating a lot of the proper stuff – because they can’t afford it. Protein and iron deficieines are all too common here. I found out that most of the poorer locals can’t afford beef or other foods high in protein. There are apparently two kinds of salt sold here. The “poor mans” salt is basically old and low in iron. The good stuff – the kind most reading this have on their dinner tables – is high in iron. Not only did we give them money for food but also, whenever my grandmother is in town, she invites them over for a meal full of all the stuff they normally can’t afford like beef and the “good” kind of salt. I was able to share such a meal with them earlier today.

Here’s a photo I took shortly after eating along with them:

One Difference at a Time - The Follow-Up

One of the things I remember Dr. Jeffrey Sachs talking about was how the poor know what they need but just cannot afford to buy it. Now that I knew the basics (protection from insect bites, funds for school, helping with food, etc) were taken care of – I could finally ask them: what do they need? I could tell no one ever asked the mother this question because it kind of took her aback. After some hesitation, the mother turned to the eldest son and quietly talked to him for a bit. She then turned to me and said it would really help if I could buy them a desk and a couple of chairs. They can’t afford it and, because of it, the son needs to study on the bed (as you can see in episode one).

Since Ikea hasn’t opened up a shop yet in rural Bangladesh, I was kind of worried that this would cost a bit of money. Afterall, all the furniture here is hand-made. And when was the last time anything hand-made was cheap, right? I went to the local bazar with my grandmother and we scouted out a couple of good hand-made chairs and a hand-made table to go along with it – not unlike the table and chair I’m using right now. Turns out the whole thing cost eight bucks. Eight bucks. Wow. Let me put it this way: There is a vending machine on the ground floor of the Hesburgh Library back at Notre Dame that has stolen more than eight bucks from me.

If I was looking for a pat on the back about my work – I’d end this article here. But, no good deed goes unpunished and nothing good comes without trouble. So click the jump to hear more…

Continue reading ‘One Difference at a Time – The Follow-Up’

A REAL Conversation about Poverty

After my latest video got featured on the YouTube homepage, there were so many people leaving comments about how fat I was, how I talked, or just leaving racial epithets, that I was resigned to the fact that my message had been lost among all the hateful messages. Then, something really amazing happened. A group of well-spoken, intelligent, and considerate group of commenters appeared. And, for the first time since being featured, a real conversation emerged.

Of course, as with any discussion, we didn’t all end up agreeing. But at least we addressed some important issues. Here is a summary of some of the topics that were touched upon:

Continue reading ‘A REAL Conversation about Poverty’

New Episode: Super Tuesday

What does Bangladesh have to do with Super Tuesday? Just some friendly (non-partisan) words of advice:


I’d write more but, much of what I said I have already written up earlier when I was giving my take on the Davos Question.

Uncultured Project as Required Reading?

I just wanted to give a big hello to those students in Dr. Kathy Ward’s SOC 437 class. Kathy sent me a copy of her syllabus for her Sociology of Globalization & Development class and I was quite surprised (and deeply honored) to see my website and videos listed as assigned reading and viewing. It’s amazing to be listed alongside the likes of Philip McMichael and his book “Global Development and Change”. I wonder what my old globalization professor would say to all this?

Now, if you are anything like me, you probably get a lot of assigned readings (both online and in print) and barely have enough time to get the readings done for all your courses. Here are some tips I hope will make life easier:

  • RSS is your friend: RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and it is your best tool to help you pick out what is most relevant or of interest to you. Virtually ever website (including this one and Kathy’s blog) has an RSS feed. With an RSS feed you can usually get the headlines plus either a summary or the full text article. This way, you can stay up-to-date and up-to-the-minute on many websites without having to go to each and everyone of them. It’s as simple as checking your email. You can either use a standalone RSS program or use something like Google Reader. The link to this website’s RSS feed is here.
  • Search, Tags, and Categories Save You Time: The great thing about the web is that it takes you away from reading things in a linear fashion. Sure, you have a table of contents and an index in a book – but there is still the urge to read from start to finish and from beginning to end. Avoid that when it comes to the internet. Help save time by searching for what is relevant to you. This website has its own search engine and an archives page.
  • Avoid Trying to Put People in a Box: My biggest problem whenever I would be reading someone’s work is that I would try and pin what their leanings were. Are they liberal? Conservative? Neo-liberal? Neo-conservative? It can get confusing and can sometimes be a waste of time. That’s especially true for me. Because the fact is…. umm… I don’t actually know what my leanings are. I like to think of myself as a centrist and moderate… but I suppose everyone likes to say that. One thing I agree though is what Dr. Sachs said once “Are we trying to prove a theory? Or are we trying to save lives?”. No theory should ever be more important than our humanitarian obligations.

Also, if you really do have a question or comment – feel free to speak up! This is especially true if you don’t agree with something I’ve said or written 🙂

My Take on the Davos Question

What do I think will make the world a better place? Well, that’s what this whole project is about. I don’t have a 100% set-in-stone answer, but I’m trying to share as much of my journey finding that answer. One thing is certain, the more I let Dr. Jeffrey Sachs’s message sink in – the more I believe it to be true.

Jeffrey Sachs and Me at the Notre Dame 2006 Forum on Global Health

What will make the world a better place? Ending extreme global poverty.

Why? Because:

1) Ending extreme poverty will keep us all healthier. Global pandemics incubate among the global poor before migrating to richer nations.

Don’t believe me? Well, as Dr. Sachs pointed out, recent studies into the origin of the AIDS virus suggests that it originated in Africa – years and years before it first appeared in America. But, no one cared. Why? Because Africans die – that’s seen as “normal” in this world as Dr. Sachs points out.

2) Ending poverty will help us fight terrorism. Terrorists recruit from the desperate and offer them a fictitious reward for sacrifices the leaders are too cowardly to make themselves.

When I went to the Cyclone Sidr Disaster Area, there was one thing I noticed most – everyone was in shock and everyone was vulnerable. Many had lost loved ones and were struggling to find the strength to carry on. They could be very vulnerable to a message from a radical extremist promising a better life if they just sacrifice themselves to a terrorist cause. Thankfully, Bangladesh isn’t as prone to Islamic Extremism as elsewhere in the world. But, as long as this extreme poverty (and with it extreme desperation) continue – terrorists will always have an easy recruiting base.

3) Ending poverty is critical to maintaining our personal identity as good natured human beings.

I decided to start this project because I couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror anymore. As I point out in my about page, everyday, 30,000 children die due to poverty and illnesses that can be easily treated. Am I doing enough? Over half the world – over 3,000,000,000 people – live on less than $2 a day. Am I doing enough? Each year, over 8,000,000 people die because they were simply too poor to stay alive. Am I doing enough? Before this project, all I was doing were just a few paltry donation here and there – usually around Christmas time.

I kind of envied others for not having these thoughts when they saw themselves in the mirror. I think a lot of us don’t think about these issues because we kind of assumed that the problem is so immense and so huge – it can’t possibly be solved and we are too small and insignificant to be a part of the movement towards that goal. But look at me – I’m running on small family donations and my 2006 tax return. It’s not a lot of money – but look how much I’ve been able to do! I’m just one person – currently unemployed. Imagine what we could all do if we tried?

Okay, so how this sounds all high and noble – but how do we get to that goal? It’s simple – we complete the eight Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations and agreed upon by almost every country in the world. We’ve been laxing on our commitments to fund these development goals – but we always seem to find money for other things.

PermaNet (Mosquito Net) Given to a Single Mother of Two

Why is this approach the best?

1) It can appeal to those who are either politically left or right leaning.

What if there was this terrorist cell working in Africa trying to develop a pathogen that would kill many Africans before spreading to Europe and America? It wouldn’t take much effort to get people on both the left and the right to unify and authorize millions and millions of dollars in spending to stop this from happening.

Why then, does the consensus break down when the threat is the same but the situation causing it is a little less dramatic? Because of the poor state of health in Africa, disease festers, mutates, and grows. Nature will create this pandemic on its own if we continue to neglect things – the only thing terrorists need to do is sit back and wait.

Supporting the MDGs isn’t a slippery slope to “one-world government”, global taxation, or the lessening of national sovereignty. It’s a logical, non-partisan, self-interest based course of action.

2) It is not a move towards socialism or communism, nor is it a refutation of market economies.

“Are we trying to prove a theory, or are we trying to save lives?” asked Dr. Sachs in regards to laissez-faire economics. Even if you believe that market economics will eventually benefit everyone – a lot of people can die before that benefit reaches them. The MDGs isn’t akin to starting a Soviet Russian-style command economy. This doesn’t involve telling people what to produce or how to work. Rather, it’s about opening up possibilities. Someone who isn’t fighting off deadly disease can focus on work and building a life. Someone who knows how to read and write has more job options than someone who is illiterate. Those who aren’t starving can aspire to earn a living that is more than just subsistence.

If people can earn a living – they’ll eventually want to live it up.

3) It doesn’t require drastic change or expenditure.

The amount of money required by any individual nation to contribute towards completing the MDGs is in the single digit percentages. In fact, as Dr. Sachs points out, if we stopped Pentagon funding for just ONE DAY – every man, woman, and child in Africa could be protected from Malaria for the next twenty year. Many Americans consider America to be a Christian nation. What if, every Christmas Day, the money that would normally be directed towards military expenditures gets redirected towards projects that reflect the spirit of Jesus and the message of the Bible?

I didn’t have time to make a separate video for the Davos Question on YouTube. But if you want the world leaders to be able to see Episode One of the Uncultured Project (which includes clips of ND 2006 Forum – used with permission) here’s how you can help make that happen. Go to this page and click on “view/vote”. Then there is a search for videos section. Search for unculturedproject – there is no space between “uncultured” and “project”. Episode one should appear – click it, and give it a thumbs up. Voting ends pretty soon actually – so don’t worry if you’ve read this after it’s too late to vote.

Friend From Notre Dame Comes to Bangladesh!

Wow – when I first came to Bangladesh, I never thought I’d be staying here for so long. I definitely never expected to be able to see any of my friends until I went back home. But, as fate would have it, one of my friends from Notre Dame is actually coming to Bangladesh. Her name is Alicia and she’s going to be studying for her Master’s in Public Health at BRAC University.

In many respects, I feel that Alicia and I have come to the same destination by the same inspiration – but on different paths. Notre Dame is a huge part of that inspiration. Before I came to Notre Dame as a graduate student, I was able to experience what it is like at other universities and colleges. What makes Notre Dame unique is that it really does inspire you to want to make the world a better place.

It was thanks to Notre Dame – and the cancellation of classes for a day as part of its Campus-Wide Forum on Global Health – that allowed Alicia and I to hear Dr. Jeffrey Sachs for the first time. It was Dr. Jeffrey Sachs who inspired us to believe that poverty can be eliminated in our lifetime. And it was Dr. Sachs’ work that instilled in us an importance on global health as a key to ending extreme poverty.

I’m going to try and encourage Alicia to try and blog (and video blog) as much of her experience as possible. But, I seriously doubt that can happen. The reason I put my academic life on hold to do this project is because it is really hard to blog and video blog when you are in demanding Masters program. This Masters of Public Health program at BRAC University (that Alicia is in) requires extensive field work in remote rural villages.

I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement for ND, but – seriously – if everyone was as committed as the people I’ve met at Notre Dame to try and make the world a better place, can you imagine how much better the world would be?