Alliances for Health

By: Katherine Marshall

July 20, 2009

A story. In 1854, a baby girl was very sick with diarrhea. Her mother washed the diapers and threw the waste water into a cesspit under a house in their Soho neighborhood. Within weeks a cholera epidemic had killed some 700 people in the neighborhood. Thousands more were sick.

A doctor, John Snow, and an Anglican priest, Henry Whitefield, refused to believe the prevailing theory: that disease was spread by a "miasma" or "bad air." The men tracked down everyone who was sick and painstakingly mapped where they lived. Snow was a scientist, and he began to link the illness to one well in the neighborhood. Whitehead knew the people and had their trust, so they cooperated with the inquiry.

When the men realized that a single well -- the now notorious Broad Street well -- was linked to nearly all the cases, they removed the handle of the pump and closed it. The epidemic quickly subsided.

The detective work that helped to link disease to the contamination of a water source is an important part of medical history. The role of the scientist is well known. The pastor's is not.

Steve de Guchy, a minister and theology professor at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa, told this story to hammer in the central message of a conference last week in Capetown. Its title was "When Religion and Health Align: Mobilizing Religious Health Assets for Transformation," and it brought together the kind of motley gathering that does give transformation a chance: ministers, medical doctors, theologians, epidemiologists from all over Africa and the United States.

The contemporary objective is the same as that of the 19th century seekers - to stop millions of preventable deaths. And again the core idea is to link the strengths of medicine and public health with those of the "religious health assets." "Mapping" the assets- taking careful stock of what is there and analyzing it-is a vital first step.

We have vastly more knowledge today than Snow and Whitefield had in 1854. Science has made huge strides and the killers of the past - diarrhea, malaria, respiratory illnesses, all most lethal to small children - should be history. They are not. World leaders, including Barack Obama, have made poignant statements in recent weeks about the imperative to act on these large global health challenges.

But many in scientific and public health circles seem to be wearing blinkers when it comes to the role that religious health assets could play, both locally and globally, in mounting more effective programs.

Part of the problem is that the assets are so complex and diverse - a galaxy, as a Catholic cardinal once described them to me. Large and tiny, formal hospitals and clinics and informal mothers' groups, traditions (good and bad) linked to health, pulpits and platforms where messages can be spread. And above all, a will, where there is knowledge, to contribute and deal with the suffering that falls most heavily on poor people.

Another problem is a common assumption that modern science has banished the role of religion in health, so huge in the past, to the distant margins. And the well-touted negative health experiences tied to religion (Christian faith healing denying care to children, imams claiming that mosquito nets are designed to cause infertility, just as examples) don't help.

But the fact is that there are huge religious health assets. Hospitals and clinics, hundreds of thousands, for a start. Nurses and doctors. A passionate commitment to caring for those who suffer. Most religious traditions see health, often broadly defined so that it links physical health, stress, and spiritual health in seamless ways, as part of their core missions.

But beyond health care itself, what may perhaps be as valuable today as it was in 1854, is the knowledge of communities and networks of people with religious links. What better way to spread the most vital advice to fight the H1N1 virus-to wash your hands?

Most health care happens outside hospitals, in families and communities. Messages are vitally important. So the alliance for transformation that Dr, Snow and Father Whitehead formed long ago is the kind of creative and open model of partnership we need today. The thousands of ideas and insights hatched in Capetown at the African Religious Health Assets Program conference last week can be an inspiration.

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