'A people with big hearts'

"It isn't the most glamorous approach," insists Paul Derstine, president of Interchurch Medical Assistance but IMA's results are, if not downright glamorous, increasingly impressive.

BY SUSAN KIM | NEW WINDSOR, Md. | January 13, 2004

"It isn't the most glamorous approach," insists Paul Derstine, president of Interchurch Medical Assistance but IMA's results are, if not downright glamorous, increasingly impressive.

In 2003, IMA reported that medical products and services valued at $63 million were distributed among 72 countries.

Part of IMA's success, Derstine says, is due to what he calls "a reasoned approach."

Headquartered in modest offices at the Brethren Service Center in rural Maryland "after all, it's cheaper than downtown Manhattan," quipped Derstine IMA carefully forges partnerships to provide healthcare in developing countries or in countries stricken by disasters.

IMA works with its member agencies faith-based groups, non-governmental organizations, corporate partners and government officials worldwide.

It's a matter of "discerning who's doing what," said Derstine. "We don't want to overlap. No one entity can do it all by themselves. It's always been about sharing of strengths and resources."

One IMA program popular among local churches is the "Medicine Box," a collection of medicines and medical supplies designed to treat common illnesses of some 1,000 adults and children for 2-3 months.

Designed by Don Padgett, a registered pharmacist and IMA's assistant vice president for pharmaceutical services, the box roughly replicates the average American medicine cabinet acetaminophen and aspirin, multivitamins, antacids, hydrocortisone creams and antibiotic soaps, gauze pads and bandages combined with some prescription drugs.

The IMA shared with local churches and civic groups specific instructions regarding assembling Medicine Boxes. Both federal regulations and World Health Organization guidelines for exported pharmaceutical and medical products require that only new products in their original sealed packaging be sent out of the country. Because the boxes may not be shipped overseas for several months after the IMA receives the donated kits, it is necessary to include products that will not expire before they are able to be used by the recipients, which may occur as many as eight to ten months later.

The IMA sends donors an acknowledgement of receipt of the donated Medicine Box, and donors are also notified when their box is shipped overseas.

The Medicine Box is what Derstine described as a "very focused kit" that is "sensitive to the World Health Organization's list of essential drugs."

The IMA also oversees a "Medical Mission" program that supplies medical products to volunteer medical mission teams; recovers and recycles surgical supplies from U.S. hospitals; and forges corporate partnerships that facilitate disease control, vaccination and emergency response.

Since 1995, IMA has facilitated annual distribution of the donated de-worming medicine, Mectizan, to treat people for the parasitic disease onchocerciasis or "river blindness" in Tanzania, East Africa. The IMA has also provided technical assistance to the Tanzania National Onchocerciasis Control Programme to eliminate the disease.

River blindness is caused by black flies that breed in fast-flowing rivers transfer infected larvae from person to person. The larvae mature under the skin into adult worms.

The primary symptom of the disease is severe itching that disrupts sleep, work and routine activities. An infected person's constant scratching creates roughened, cracked and discolored skin. Social interaction is often affected by the resulting disfigurement. Eventually, parasites migrating to the eyes cause inflammation and blindness.

The medication, Mectizan, has been donated by Merck and Co., which has indicated it plans to donate the drug for as long as necessary to control the disease.

In another effort centered in Tanzania, the IMA provides technical assistance and donated medical products for the Tanzania Burkitt's Lymphoma program. Burkitt's lymphoma occurs in Africa in areas prone to malaria. This form of cancer is a rapidly growing tumor, usually of the jaw, face or eye, and is always fatal unless treated.

Children with the tumor are treated with an affordable alternative treatment regimen that causes the tumor to dissipate in just days.

In both Tanzania and Haiti, the IMA has helped provide programs that aim to eliminate the parasitic disease lymphatic filariasis, a mosquito-borne illness that results in disabling swelling and infection, and lymphatic system damage.

The IMA also partners with the Protestant Church of Congo to administer a five-year USAID grant to strengthen 60 "health zones" in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Health zones are a comprehensive network able to support decentralized primary care. Funding from the World Bank is supporting additional 11 health zones.

In the wake of the Jan. 17, 2001 volcanic eruption that devastated the community of Goma, health zones were credited as a structure that facilitated rapid response.

Looking ahead to the next decade, Derstine predicts treating and preventing HIV/AIDS will be a huge challenge. Already, the IMA helps faith-based groups provide care and support to people with HIV/AIDS through distribution of home care kits and Diflucan donated by Pfizer for treatment of opportunistic infections.

As for Derstine himself, he might be described as a businessman with a heart.

With a background in business, Derstine also had a knack for international development work. He spent time in Haiti as well as in Africa helping to build micro-enterprises.

This background, combined with his experience for more than a decade with the IMA, has given him a faith in humankind he readily shares. "What it comes down to is that we really are a people with big hearts," he said.

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