Cynthia Maung is a 39-year-old doctor who fled the Burmese junta in 1988 and ended up in a refugee camp with nothing but the clothes on her back.
A member of an ethnic group known as Karens, she began working out of her tent, ministering to fellow refugees in the jungles of northwestern Thailand.
"The various aid groups working with refugees realized this was a remarkable resource, and they provided her with assistance so she could expand," says Nils Daulaire, president of the Global Health Council, an organization of more than 1,000 medical professionals and organizations. "She has trained hundreds of paramedic workers and done a number of outreach clinics, including in Burma. She has gone back in at tremendous risk." Her medical system reaches some 20,000 refugees.
"She lives in poverty herself and dedicates her life to caring for these people," Daulaire says. For her commitment to the health and human rights of these refugees, Maung will be the first recipient of the Jonathan Mann award, commemorating the life of the doctor who was the first director of the World Health Organization's Global Program on AIDS. Mann and his wife died in the crash of Swissair Flight 111 last September. A panel appointed by the Global Health Council selected Maung from nominees around the world.
The award, which carries a $25,000 prize, is scheduled to be presented by former president Jimmy Carter on June 22 at the Global Health Council's annual meeting here. Because there are no phones in the camp where Maung lives, Daulaire says, she was told of the award through intermediaries. "She was immensely surprised that anyone in this country, particularly somebody of the stature of Carter, would even know of her work," he says. Whether she will be able to leave Thailand to receive the aware is problematic. She is a stateless person, without documents. If she cannot leave Thailand with assurances she can return, the award will be presented in a live video conference, Daulaire says.
He describes the award, and an address by Carter on poverty, health and human rights, as the "the moral center" of the three-day conference that begins June 20 at the Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel.
"The issue we are trying to pull together," he says, "is that both for moral reasons and humanitarian reasons and for solid reasons of international security and economic well-being, dealing with health issues of the underserved around the world is in our own highest self-interest."
Until he resigned last year to head the council, Daulaire was the U.S. government's leading authority on international health. Among his goals for the council are to build an international constituency with the idea that countries can't participate in the global economy if their people and economies are depleted by crushing health costs.
Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs will be one of the featured speakers at the conference, and "his analysis shows that investment in health for poor people is an extraordinarily good investment for countries and for the world," Daulaire says. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the director-general of the World Health Organization, will speak on health and equity as linchpins of international security.
The council, which includes foreign aid agencies, the major international relief organizations, Planned Parenthood and major universities, has been reaching out to private industry during the past year.
"An increasing number of pharmaceutical and medical supply companies are stepping up to the plate," Daulaire says. "Merck and SmithKlein Beecham are working together to make a massive contribution of up to $100 million in product to combat elephantiasis . . . in which limbs get so swollen up that they look like an elephant leg. Over 100 million people around the world suffer from it." Merck has made a large donation of a drug used to treat river blindness.
"One of the things that's been missing has been a place where the pharmaceutical companies could meet in a non-confrontational environment with people on the front lines of global health and look at where joint programs could be developed," Daulaire says. "Now that they are part of the Global Health Council, that is going to open an awful lot of doors." The council has provided meeting space for people and organizations that traditionally have not communicated well.
The conference will have numerous sessions on immunization programs, which will allow people who run them to get up-to-date information on emerging vaccines. "That gives them a chance to think five years in the future rather than dealing with the techniques and strategies of 10 years ago," Daulaire says.
The conference is expected to draw 1,200 people from more than 30 countries. The deadline for registering is today. For more information about the conference sessions, go to the council's Web site at www.globalhealth.org.
The end point of the council's work, in Daulaire's vision, is to create a profound awareness of the importance of health to global prosperity and security, so that it becomes central in any discussion of international affairs or U.S. health.
The conference slogan is a powerful message that is at the heart of the Global Health Council's mission: "When it comes to global health, there is no them. There is only us." That point will be well made when a former president of the United States honors a young doctor who has risked her life for the health and human rights of refugees.