This blog post was submitted as an entry in the Teen Impact contest and awarded as a runner-up.
Various diseases, for which we in the United States have available treatments, continue to adversely affect communities all over the world. It is up to individuals, companies, and countries with the resources to solve a global public health problem to reach out to those who are in need. After coming face-to-face with one community's lack of access to a vaccine that I had simply taken for granted, I decided to try my hand at making a difference with respect to the imbalance between the "haves" and "have-nots."
Shortly into my junior year, I traveled to Tijuana for the first time since my childhood. I had arranged to meet with Las Fronteras Unidas Pro Salud (LFUPS), a non-profit healthcare organization, about a disease which affects Mexico harshly: cervical cancer. I had recently been vaccinated and, like many of my friends, I thought nothing of it. When I heard from a mentor that five young women had recently died from this disease in a small Oaxacan community of Tijuana called Valle Verde, I agreed to join him for a visit.
Crossing into Tijuana, I was struck by its surreal nature. It is a city torn apart by drug cartels, beheadings, corruption, and fear, yet it stands on the border of America's prosperity. It was Tijuana's pockets of extreme poverty, however, that rattled my core.
I toured the facilities of LFUPS and the nearby Mixtec elementary school. Walking around, I was welcomed by students speaking animatedly to me in Spanish as I did my best to translate for myself. The principal explained to me how the school attempted to help students with their healthcare, but lacked funding. I realized my immense luck at being born in the country to the north, which is visible from the school, and decided I needed to do something. I set for myself the goal of starting a foundation to raise $18,000 which would enable 100 girls to be vaccinated.
Over the past year, I have worked to spread awareness in San Diego. Although the HPV vaccine has never been free of controversy, my work has coincided with increasing scrutiny from the media. With certain politicians demonizing the vaccine, I have been targeted with rude calls, scathing online commentary, and heated words. In my responses, I have tried to be balanced and open-minded, as I hope those who hear the story of the Valle Verde girls will be. Moreover, for every negative word said about teenage promiscuity, vaccine-induced mental disorders, and other fabrications and misdirection, there have been many firsthand stories from women and men about the brutal reality of cervical cancer and the importance of the vaccine.
I have been back to Valle Verde several times, most recently to visit the first group of girls to receive their third and final shot. My foundation has raised the full $18,000, and I was profusely thanked in Spanish, Oaxacan, and bits of English. However, I was the thankful one. In addition to helping see my very good fortune at being born in the United States, working for the girls of Valle Verde taught me valuable lessons about ignoring borders, both mental and physical, and standing up for what I think is right.
Hopefully my project will not stop at Valle Verde. Through connections created by working on this project, I have recently been introduced to the Chief Medical Officer of Merck Dr. Michael Rosenblatt, who has in turn introduced me to Merck's vaccines group. I am very excited about their expression of interest in helping me take my project to a greater scale in Mexico. Although we are at an early stage of discussions, it is exciting to think about the impact that might be possible with the backing of a well-resourced partner. Regardless of outcome, I am committed to further work in addressing the imbalance in global public health.
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