Hari Prabhakar, a Johns Hopkins University sophomore from Dallas, has conducted a three-month clinical study of the health care gap facing tribal people in his parents' homeland, India. He was able to conduct his research thanks to funding provided by the Provost's Undergraduate Research Award program, which affords students at Johns Hopkins the opportunity to conduct independent research during their undergraduate years.
Last summer, Prabhakar traveled to Tamil Nadu — the state where his parents grew up — to study the success of the Tribal Health Initiative, started in 1993 to provide low-cost medical care to remote tribal communities.
The social, political and economic constraints of the caste system make it difficult for tribal citizens to gain access to health services in the rural areas of their inhabitance, Prabhakar says.
"People in tribes are below the bottom ranks of the caste system," he says, adding that the disparity between tribal treatments and those offered by modern medicine are a cultural hurdle.
Ten percent of India's population is affected, but it's a problem that isn't widely recognized, he says. An annual traveler to India, Prabhakar wasn't aware of the situation until he came across a profile in the Indian version of Reader's Digest of the two doctors who created THI. Inspired by their work, Prabhakar wrote to the doctors to ask if he could visit them to study their program. He planned a three-month clinical study of THI from an epidemiological perspective, tracking infant mortality, genetic disorders, gastrointestinal disorders and tuberculosis. He found that those numbers have improved thanks to THI's presence.
The results of the THI infectious diseases study will be published by the National Medical Journal of India.
While Prabhakar was concentrating on the relative appearance and magnitude of those four health issues, he also noticed that the rate of sickle-cell anemia among tribal people was unexpectedly high. This turn led Prabhakar to co-author a paper about managing the disease that has been accepted for publication by the Medical Anthropology Quarterly and which was presented on Feb. 6 at the Sickle-Cell Anemia Conference in Wayanad, India, hosted by the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Swami Vivekananda Medical Institute.
That Prabhakar discovered something outside his intended path isn't surprising to his PURA adviser, Veena Das, chair of the Anthropology Department at Johns Hopkins.
"What has impressed me most about Hari is his intellectual curiosity along with the ability to work in very difficult circumstances and to organize interventions in an effective manner," Das says. "He is able to learn in new environments, and though he sees complexity, he is not paralyzed by it."
To supplement his epidemiological study, the physicians invited Prabhakar to travel with them to remote villages and observe their treatment of tribal people. Prabhakar's fluency in Tamil, the predominant language of the region, was a welcome surprise to the patients.
"The tribal populations of the area are people very grateful and accepting of the health care interventions that are offered to them by external sources," says Prabhakar, a sophomore majoring in public health and the Writing Seminars.
Writing in an e-mail from India, Regi and Lalitha George, the couple who started the Tribal Health Initiative, said, "Hari is a young and very enthusiastic budding doc — very concerned about the tribals. It is difficult to find young people like him who are sensitive to the underprivileged."
On Thursday, March 10, Steven Knapp, university provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, hosted the 12th annual PURA Awards ceremony, honoring the 45 winners who conducted their projects in the summer and fall of 2004. Since 1993, about 40 students each year have received PURA grants of up to $3,000 to conduct original research, some results of which have been published in professional journals. The awards, funded through a donation from the Hodson Trust, are an important part of the university's mission and its commitment to research opportunities for undergraduates.
The Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards are open to students in each of the university's four schools with full-time undergraduates: the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering, the Peabody Conservatory and the School of Nursing.
To speak with Prabhakar and his advisor, contact Amy Cowles at 443-287-9904. Digital photos of Prabhakar in India are also available upon request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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