In the late 1990s, Dr. Larry Thomas was working as an
emergency room physician, when a colleague invited him to Ethiopia. A decade before, Thomas had studied
tropical medicine in London and he was curious to explore the geographically
complex African nation. What he
found would change the course of his life.
|Man with Podoconiosis ( (Luke Sherman ))|
"That was my introduction to the desperate situation of the
people in Ethiopia," said Thomas.
"While I was over there, I saw all of these people with these massively
disfigured feet. At the time, they
thought it was caused by an infection by a worm but later they realized it was
coming from the soil."
Podoconiosis (Podo) is a disfiguring and debilitating
disease that causes elephantiasis of the feet and legs. It is caused by a tiny silica fiber in
red clay, a fiber too small to be seen with the naked eye. "It goes up into the lymphatic system
and causes inflammation and ultimately scarring and then it doesn't drain
properly," said Thomas." Podo is
usually found in areas with high elevation, high precipitation and extreme
The disease is made worse by superstition and the false
belief that Podo can be "caught" by stepping in the shadow of someone who has
the disease. "You can imagine
walking down the street and having everyone take a big step around you so that
your shadow doesn't hit them," said Thomas. "A lot of those people think they have a demon so they
hide. They're embarrassed because
of their condition."
If left untreated, Podoconiosis can require amputation and
may even lead to death but it has a simple solution. Podo can be prevented by wearing shoes. While there is no cure, the swelling
can be reduced dramatically with soap, dilute bleach, antibiotic ointment,
shoes, socks and pressure dressings.
If children wear shoes, the disease will not develop. "Simply by
providing shoes, we could have a positive impact on these people's lives," said
|Man with Cataracts ( (Luke Sherman ))|
One million people in Ethiopia have podoconiosis, one out of
every 83. No one knows how long
the disease has been around but the World Health Organization only recognized
it as a neglected tropical disease in February 2011. "Nobody really knows about
it and nobody really cares," said Thomas.
"This is not a disease that most people get."
In 2006, Thomas founded the Tropical Health Alliance
Foundation (THAF), a non profit organization with a mission to helps provide
educational training and medical assistance to people living in the poorest
conditions. Much of THAF's focus
is in Ethiopia. Thomas says he was
drawn the complex problems faced by the Ethiopian people because the solutions
are often uncomplicated.
"The thing that impressed me was that you could do so much there with so
little," said Thomas. "You could
make great improvement for so little money."
|Larry Thomas with Ethiopian Children ( (Sean Stromsoe))|
Another serious problem with an inexpensive solution is in
the removal of cataracts.
Cataracts are clouded areas on the lenses of the eyes and they are the
most common cause of blindness in the world. "It's a little unknown why they get these cataracts but they
are devastating," said Thomas. "I
just saw so many people that were blind and these children leading them
The children are assistants. In Ethiopia, when a person goes blind, they need help
getting around. This help most
often comes in the form of a young relative, usually a girl, who is forced to
put away her childhood and leave school in order to help. When the old person dies, the child is
left with no childhood and no education," said Thomas.
Thomas said 80% of cataracts are treatable and curable for a
very low cost. "We can restore
vision for fifty dollars," said Thomas.
"The average adult in America has enough in their pocket to restore
vision to a person in Ethiopia.
That's enough for a blind person to see and a child to be
Ethiopia has one of world's largest percentages of people
with cataracts. It also has fewer
than 2,000 doctors in the entire nation, nearly all of whom live in the capital
city of Addis Ababa. It is
difficult for people outside the city to find or afford medical help.
|Young Helper Leading a Blind Man ( (Luke Sherman ))|
Thomas spoke of a time he helped arrange treatment for an
Ethiopian mother in her early 30s.
"She had gradually lost her vision due to cataracts," he explained. "She had given birth to four children
but she had seen only two of them."
After surgery, the young mother regained her sight and was able to see
her children. "I think that that
second on planet earth, it was the most amazing thing that was going on."
Along with their eyesight, entire lives are restored. "They can be productive," said
Thomas. "They're not a burden to
society. They can work again and
to see that from the periphery is just amazing.
An additional area of focus that enhances the life of young
people is the repair of obstetrical fistula. A fistula is a tearing of a woman's internal tissues during
the birth process that results in incontinence, loss of body functions that is
so severe, the women are ostracized and forced to live in isolation.
According to the World Health Organization, 100,000 women in
Ethiopia suffer from fistula and 9,000 more cases develop each year. One reason is the lack of doctors and
midwives. Another is the fact that
young girls are married off at an early age. The United Nations International Children's Fund reports
that many Ethiopian girls are forced into marriage at age seven or eight and
become pregnant when they first hit puberty, before their bodies are mature
enough to give birth.
Fistula can be prevented and is treatable but it is often
difficult to find the women who need help. Thomas's organization has a team of individuals in Ethiopia,
a group of heroes who seek out women who need assistance. "They're the ones who go out and find
these women and clean them up and bring them in," said Thomas.
Thomas credits the Ethiopians for doing much of the work and
coming up with the resources. "They provided us a clinic to work in. We bring in the doctors and the
medicine," said Thomas. "We
couldn't manage without them and they're appreciative of our help as well."
Thomas said he's grateful for the opportunity to work with
the people of Ethiopia. "It really
changes you," he said. "The
opportunity. The opportunities are
infinite and it's just wonderful to be a part of it."