Médecins Sans Frontières Scientific Day 2013

PLOS Medicine was one of the sponsors - check out the swag!

PLOS Medicine was one of the sponsors – check out the swag!

Last Friday, I had the fortunate opportunity to attend the Médecins Sans Frontières Scientific day at the Royal Society of Medicine in London.  If you didn’t get a chance to check out the coverage via online streaming or twitter, I’ll give a quick run-down of things here.


What is Médecins Sans Frontières?

Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors without Borders, or just simply MSF, is an international humanitarian aid organisation. MSF gives rapid, non-discriminatory emergency aid in situations of humanitarian crisis, such as during armed conflict, natural disasters, and disease epidemics. In 1999, MSF won the Nobel Peace Prize “in recognition of the organization’s pioneering humanitarian work on several continents“.


What is MSF Scientific Day?

MSF conducts scientific research alongside the health care relief that they provide in emergency situations. For example, MSF responded to a major outbreak of lead poisoning among children in northern Nigeria in 2010. In addition to providing care for the affected children, MSF scientists conducted research among the children to determine the factors associated with neurological symptoms caused by lead poisoning and to assess the effectiveness of their treatment programme (research presented at the 2013 Scientific Day). The purpose of the Scientific Day is to disseminate this research produced by MSF scientists to the greater public.


So what?

As I learned throughout the day, the balance between providing health care in a crisis while conducting research is extremely delicate. MSF has to deal with many sensitive and ethical issues such as:

– How can resources be devoted to research when they are so badly needed for health care treatment, particularly in low-resource settings?

– How can it be ensured that the research conducted is high-quality, addressing the most important issues for the people who are the research subjects, and actually making a difference?

– How can scientific objectivity and neutrality be maintained in research when the humanitarian situation demands strong advocacy?


Things are now becoming a little more complicated. The morning sessions of the day covered results of recent research MSF has conducted, with exciting findings such as the positive effects of blogging among multi-drug resistant TB patients around the world and an effective TB treatment programme in Somalia, which is an extremely dangerous conflict setting. But, is conducting this type of research withdrawing precious resources from aid efforts, is the research addressing the big problems that the affected people are most concerned with, and is it having the highest impact possible? Enter Hans Rosling:


Lessons from Hans Rosling

If you have not heard of Hans Rosling, stop reading immediately and listen to his TEDTalk. Right now. Seriously, do it.

Hans Rosling is a Swedish medical doctor and academic who is one of 2012’s 100 Most Influential People in the World according to Time Magazine. He co-founded ‘Gapminder’, which is amazing software that makes data accessible and interactive for people to use – a ‘modern museum on the Internet’. He has a whole string of TEDTalks online and I recommend listening to any one of them to get fired up about making change and reducing inequality in the world.

Hans Rosling worked in Mozambique as a medical doctor in the early 1980’s and came to share with us his experience of working in a poor, low resource area where there were only two medical doctors for a population of 300,000 people. You must, must, must watch the video from his Scientific Day talk. He is a hilarious speaker and told an inspiring story about his experiences (including an encounter where Fidel Castro attempted to participate in designing his research study!).

I won’t rehash his talk (although it involved wildly jumping up on a table, almost knocking over a glass water jug, and sending his pointer stick flying across the room in the span of a minute), although he left us with three main lessons:


  1. If you are responding to a humanitarian crisis and want to conduct research, you need extra resources. When human lives are at stake and you have few resources to begin with, health care is the priority;
  2. If you are in a situation where politics can influence your work (the Fidel Castro situation), you must define who you are: a researcher. That means being as unbiased, neutral, and as objective as one can be and not letting yourself be used as a political pawn;
  3. If, as a humanitarian response, you do something perfectly, you have taken a resource away from somewhere else where it could have been used. Listen to the people who are affected and give them what they need, rather than aiming to be the “perfect” humanitarian aid worker. You will never do it, and you don’t want to leave a place in a situation where your intervention is not sustainable.


Thank you, Hans

Thank you, Hans

In short, it was an extremely enlightening and thought-provoking day. The issues brought up are extremely important to human health, development, and rights and we need to be having conversations about these issues. Please check out the online feed of the Scientific Day (it won’t be available online until May 17th, but you can see the posters for now), take a look at Gapminder, and comment below or on twitter (#MSFSci) to continue the discourse!


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