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Posted by Dr. Lachlan Forrow August 6, 2013 01:04 PM
Most of these "Mortal Matters" blog entries have focused on the challenges of acknowledging and dealing with the inevitability of our own mortality, and the inevitable mortality of everyone we love. But sometimes it is our acceptance of people's deaths that is the problem -- especially when their deaths are both tragically premature and readily preventable.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), millions of people die each year of readily-preventable causes, including the vast majority of the 6.9 million children who die before they reach their fifth birthday. Over 1.5 million people still die each year of HIV/AIDS, one million of tuberculosis, 300,000 of malaria, and 280,000 women of complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Almost all of these deaths are in low- and middle-income countries, and almost all are preventable.
It doesn't need to be this way.
Last month, hundreds of people -- including Nobel laureates, physicians and scientists, representatives of the WHO, the World Bank, UNESCO, and others -- gathered in Africa to celebrate the Centennial of the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambarene, Gabon, founded in 1913 by Dr. Schweitzer (1875-1965) and his wife and soulmate Helene Breslau (1879-1957). Hosted by Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba, the Albert Schweitzer Centennial Symposium and related events culminating in an ambitious "Lambarene Declaration", launching a renewed commitment to furthering Dr. Schweitzer's legacy of service to all in need, not just in the Lambarene Region, but across Africa and beyond.
Visitors toured the nearly-completed campus of the new Albert Schweitzer International University Center for Research and Health that President Ali and Gabon have constructed adjacent to the grounds of the Albert Schweitzer Hospital. The new Center will serve as a coordinating hub for international collaboration to end not only the "Triple Epidemic" of HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria in Africa, but also the unconscionable daily toll of preventable maternal and child deaths. Expanded training and support of African scientists and health care workers will be the top priority, pursued through the creation, at the new Albert Schweitzer International University Center, of a School of Public Health, which will include use of modern global communications to make web-based curricula available at little or no cost to students across the continent.
The Schweitzer Centennial Symposium's rich program of speakers and panelists was webcast live across the world, watched by over 6,000 people in more than 40 countries, with all sessions remaining available on-line.
I suspect that Dr. Schweitzer would be as pleased as he would be surprised that his Hospital has survived so long after his death, and that it continues to serve as such a powerful symbol of human solidarity, and as a beacon of hope to the world. But I am even more confident that he would say that all that really matters from events like the recent celebrations is that they spark renewed efforts to prevent and relieve suffering, and to avert premature deaths, wherever they occur.
Today, none of us need to travel to Africa, as Albert Schweitzer and Helene Breslau did, to make a difference in the lives of people who need us. Nor need we all focus on far-away places. In almost all of our own local communities, and even within our own families, we can think, if we try, of people we could do more to help -- and perhaps, like Schweitzer, find deep satisfaction when we actually do.
When we succeed in doing so, we may find that we are actually granting ourselves one of our own deepest "end-of-life wishes" -- to be able to look back when our own mortality looms, and be glad about some of the things we did with our time.
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About the authorLachlan Forrow, MD is Director of Ethics Programs and Director of Palliative Care Programs at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. More »
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