Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Undergraduate Issue

Volume 26 Number 2
Spring 2004

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smiling man playing with Kenyan children
Kunal Desai plays with Children on the farm where Outreach Kenya Development Volunteers live. The farm is part of a village called Kabula in Western Province, Kenya.
Photo courtesy Kunal Desai

Fighting AIDS with Information

Shadowing a doctor on his rounds in a rural hospital in Western Kenya two summers ago, Kunal Desai, 21, noticed something strange. Although most of the patients were dying of AIDS, none of the charts mentioned the virus that has infected nearly 14 percent of the country's population.

"According to the official records these patients were dying of everything but AIDS," says Desai. "Kenya is being ravaged by HIV, but many of its citizens are either unaware or in denial of the full extent of the devastation." Desai is a Wells Scholar at Indiana University Bloomington and co-director of the Outreach Kenya Development Volunteers (OKDV) program. He graduates this spring with a B.S. in biology and an individualized major in international development.

While preparing for medical school, Desai has devoted his college career—in the classroom, laboratory, and in the field—to changing the way Africans think about and respond to the AIDS epidemic.

"In the United States, AIDS has become a chronic but treatable condition," he says. "In Africa, it's usually a death sentence."

During the summer of 2001, Desai made his first trip to Africa and encountered up close the kinds of havoc an unchecked epidemic can inflict on a developing nation. He worked closely with former IU visiting professor Rev. Reuben Lubanga—the director of Intercommunity Development Involvement, a nongovernmental organization devoted to educating Kenyans about AIDS prevention▀and with other IU students and faculty. Armed with a used truck, an old television, and a generator, the group traveled the back roads of rural Kenya, speaking with and showing educational videos to groups ranging from 10 to as many as 200 people.

"Ninety percent of the people we met were receptive to learning more about AIDS," says Desai, "but some Kenyans, especially the older generation, have only superficial knowledge about the epidemic and how to avoid becoming infected." Many Kenyans, according to Desai, are simply unaware of the specifics of how the virus is transmitted. One widespread idea claims that mosquitoes transmit HIV while another more pernicious myth holds that HIV infection can be cured by having sex with a virgin.

During his initial three-month stint in Africa, Desai helped to educate more than 7,000 Kenyans about AIDS prevention. He also helped build the first public library in Western Kenya (and fill it with books donated from sponsors in the United States) and establish a public school, which today enrolls more than 100 students.

These projects marked only the beginning of Desai's work on behalf of AIDS awareness and health-care delivery in Africa. Returning to IU in the fall of 2002, Desai embarked on his second major, an individualized program his faculty mentor Dennis Conway calls "people-centered development."

"When Kunal returned from Africa he realized that he needed a fuller understanding of the social and cultural contexts of health-care issues in developing countries," says Conway, professor of geography at IUB. Desai delved into the literature on the developing world, focusing especially on the causes behind the generally shoddy nature of such development in the 20th century.

Desai's research continued throughout the summer of 2003. While in Senegal studying the history of Muslim West Africa, in his "spare time" he investigated possible reasons for Senegal's relatively low 1.2 percent rate of HIV infection. The low rate is generally attributed to governmental programs, but through interviews with Senegalese students, Desai uncovered the possibility that Muslim cultural taboos concerning nonmarital sex also play a role in preventing the spread of HIV.

Desai has also returned to Kenya. His outreach work and development research have played fundamental roles in his plan to go to medical school and then work with "Doctors Without Borders" on AIDS prevention in Africa.

"There are plenty of doctors in the United States, and while they do important work, doing medicine here doesn't always translate into making a difference on a large scale," Desai says. "I want to be where the need is more pressing."

—Jeremy Shere

Shere, a freelance science writer, is pursuing his Ph.D. in English at IU Bloomington.