Public-health activist Zvi Bentwich has committed his life to combating AIDS in Israel and Africa.Zvi Bentwich was the first physician in Israel to deal extensively with AIDS. In the 1990s, his research demonstrated the link between immune-system deficiencies and intestinal parasites (often euphemistically termed “neglected tropical diseases,” or NTDs). He is a cofounder of the NALA Foundation, whose mission is to overcome poverty, cure NTDs, and fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.
Like many who are involved in humanitarian aid, Professor Bentwich hopes that someday his services will no longer be needed. As he explains, he is helping people to learn how to help themselves:
. . . Schistosomiasis is a water-borne disease; it is a typical example of how you can get infected when you don’t have health education or straightforward information about how not to get infected. It’s very simple: you get infected if you are exposed to where these parasites are. So if you go barefoot into a puddle or a stream, then you can get infected. If you know that you should not go barefoot, you cover your feet. It’s as simple as that.
You can do mass drug administration, but you also have to deal with the causes of the disease, with clean water and sanitation. Health education is also part and parcel of the treatment. If you work only with drugs, you will not get very far. Maybe the population will get better for a few months, but then they will get reinfected if they don’t understand what can be done to prevent getting infected again.
First we developed a survey and figured out what questions needed to be asked. And we recruited good partners in the area. We’ve had great success with a very impressive Ethiopian NGO called Rift Valley Children and Women Development, and with another NGO called OSSA, the Organization for Support Services for AIDS. They understood very quickly that what we were doing was a good thing.
When we did our survey in Mekelle, Ethiopia to our surprise, we found that in a third of the communities that we surveyed, between 80 and 100 percent had this infection. And we saw that the geographic distribution of the infections fitted with parts of Mekelle and the surrounding area that had problems with the water supply. The children were going into streams that were highly infested with these parasites. So the percentages made sense.
So we started intervening. We worked with the local health and education systems, parent-teacher associations, women’s groups, and other groups within the community. In addition, we sent over volunteer delegations, mainly from Ben-Gurion University, who focused on health education and hygiene activities. They worked with local students from Mekelle University and empowered them to initiate advocacy projects so the word would go out to all the schools in the city. Israel’s MASHAV helped too: they invested in the construction of new latrines.
One thing has led to another, and we’ve had dramatic results. We watched the level of infection go down—at first from 80–90 percent down to 20 percent, and later to less than 5 percent. Changing habits can be a very difficult thing. It boils down to being optimistic and believing that you can make a change. Like everything, you have to have the vision and to believe that it can happen.