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Boundless Humanitarian – The Miraculous Path of Dignitas’ Dr. James Orbinski [M Style & Fashion]

M Style & Fashion, Fall-Winter 2012

By Bryan Borzykowski


James Orbinski’s yearlong visit to Africa in 1986 was supposed to be nothing more than a research trip. At the time, the doctor was studying pediatric immunology, with a focus on child-related HIV, at McMaster University. Learning about the disease from Canada was difficult – there weren’t many cases of it here – so he decided to go to Rwanda, Zaire and Kenya, the HIV epicentre, to get a firsthand look at the effects of the virus on kids in Africa.

While he knew it would be a harrowing experience, he never thought it would be a life-changing one. After witnessing such extreme poverty and seeing just how different Canada’s medical system is from Africa’s, Orbinski realized that being a researcher wouldn’t cut it. “The experience completely altered my life,” he says. “I went as a scientist and came back as person committed to humanitarian medicine.”

When he returned home he quit his pediatric residency and joined MSF Canada – the Canadian chapter of Doctors Without Borders. His family wasn’t pleased. “They thought I was making a big mistake,” he says, laughing. “And I didn’t.” For the next 14 years, Orbinski would travel the world helping people in war-torn and underprivileged countries and speaking out against human rights violations. He was president of Doctors Without Borders between 1998 and 2001 and accepted the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize on its behalf.

Orbinski’s work could have ended there. He had helped more people – and seen more devastation – than most doctors do in a lifetime. But he’s not the type to rest on his laurels; there was simply too much left to do. He set his sights, once again, on Africa, but rather than simply attending to patients there, he wanted to try to change the entire medical system.

In 2004, he, along with James Fraser, started Dignitas International, a nonprofit organization that trains doctors, nurses, lab technicians and community healthcare workers how to treat AIDS and tuberculosis in Malawi. While the country does train doctors, Orbinski says that most leave for jobs in developed countries. Those who stay, mostly nurses, don’t have the proper skills to help everyone. The country, Orbinski says, has 15 million people but only 265 doctors. “That leaves countries like Malawi with rampant epidemics and a profound shortage of healthcare workers to deal with it.”

One of the company’s main initiatives is preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission. Dignitas’ research found that the most common prevention method – taking the drug nevirapine in the last days of pregnancy and in the first week after delivery – doesn’t work. Instead, they recommend that HIV-positive women take combination HIV drug therapy as soon as they’re diagnosed rather than waiting until they get sick. Women don’t stop taking the treatment when they are pregnant or breastfeeding. Orbinski found that this approach virtually eliminates HIV transmission. “It keeps the mother alive and healthy so that she’s actually able to raise her children,” he says. Dignitas raised money for the program at a special Toronto screening of Skyfall, the new James Bond movie, on November 6.

It’s clear to Dr. Orbinski that his efforts in Malawi are working. The next step? To get people talking more about mundane life topics, and less about death, across all of Africa. “The possibility of influencing global health to better outcomes is really the goal of the organization,” he says. “We’re both shaping the solution and we are part of the solution.”

Dignitas InternationalBoundless Humanitarian – The Miraculous Path of Dignitas’ Dr. James Orbinski [M Style & Fashion]