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by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez<

In my classes this spring at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, I have been exploring the fruitful overlap between the humanities and environmental studies …
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Dr. Parth Mehta '91

Proving that Cancer Can Be Treated, No Matter Where You Live

In the three and a half years Dr. Parth Mehta '91 spent in sub-Saharan Africa, he was the only pediatric oncology and hematology consultant for over 90,000 children living with HIV. Now he’s at Texas Children’s Cancer Center, where he’ll soon become the director of the International Program. Parth (as he prefers to be called) is working to save children in developing countries from dying of cancers routinely cured in wealthier nations.

"My goal is to bring the success of pediatric hematology and oncology treatment in the West to the developing world where the majority of children with cancer live and, sadly, die," Mehta Says.

Developing a treatment model for sub-Saharan Africa

Parth went to Botswana in 2007 with Baylor College of Medicine's International Pediatric Aids Initiative (BIPAI) Pediatric AIDS Corps. BIPAI has created a network of Centers of Excellence to care for children living with HIV. The Centers connect doctors and nurses across nine African nations and serve as incubators for local medical expertise.

Doctors like Parth educate local leaders who can then educate their colleagues. BIPAI’s Pediatric AIDS Corps strives to create internally sustainable, repeatable healthcare models that save lives. “We want to build a system that doesn’t have to rely on foreign resources or expertise,” Parth explains.

In a typical day in Botswana, Parth provided care for anywhere from 20 to 40 children. There, tasks normally completed by nurses or pharmacists in America were left up to him. There was no shortage of work.

“That’s where the Simon’s Rock in me came in handy: I didn’t have the technical skill, but I knew how to think and problem solve. I taught myself to mix chemo and deliver the chemo, which the oncologist never does in the US, and I educated local nurses and doctors about how they could do it themselves.”

The learning curve was steep. It left Parth feeling like he had walked into a different world. And watching children who could be cured die was heart wrenching. But with treatment models he developed with the Pediatric AIDS Corps and the Centers of Excellence, Parth was able to make a big difference.

Shifting the perception that these children can’t be saved

Many children local physicians and nurses thought could not be saved had their cancers go into remission and disappear altogether under Parth’s care.

“There were a lot of kids about whom my colleagues said, ‘well, send her home so she can die,’” Parth recounts. “But we chose to treat many of them who are now cancer free. We did that with limited resources and on types of cancer that are not easy to treat. It’s proof of principle that a life that’s worth saving doesn’t have to be lost just because that person is living in the developing world.”

When Parth assumes his new role as director of the International Program, he’ll travel extensively to advocate for resources and improved standards. He’s currently developing a list of essential medicines for pediatric oncology. His work will help get medicines to places where they aren’t yet available. And Parth and the BIPAI team are working to replicate their success. Through the Centers of Excellence, they will bring the pediatric HIV treatment models developed in Botswana to other African countries, including Libya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya.

When he was in Botswana, Parth often quizzed local nurses and doctors about the cure rate of Wilm’s Tumor, a common kind of pediatric cancer. “They’d consistently speculate it was 0-40%, and I’d surprise them by saying that with a simple form of chemo, the cure rate could be as high as 98%,” he recalls. “I’m proud to say I left Botswana with a corps of local advocates who can now communicate that cancer is not a death sentence and that there are many treatments available.”

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