When first-year medical student Vivek Murthy completes his medical training and begins his career as a physician, he plans to continue a philanthropic venture he started as a freshman in college. If he is successful, he may well become the Paul Newman of the health products world, channeling profits from commercial enterprises into a charitable foundation that supports health education and other initiatives in developing countries and underserved communities in the United States.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, Murthy launched VISIONS Worldwide Inc., a non-profit organization that has about 200 students working on AIDS prevention and community health projects. Its AIDS prevention program has sent American college students to India to help high school-age students organize local AIDS education and prevention efforts. Also in India, VISIONS has worked with a hospital to identify village women for training in nursing and community health. In the Boston area, VISIONS has linked student volunteers to HIV service agencies. VISIONS also publishes an annual journal and holds an annual conference.
The organization’s AIDS education project in India started with six student emissaries in the summer of 1995; this summer 22 students are expected to go abroad. While in India, student volunteers meet with groups of students and hold workshops that use performance and role-playing to underscore the message of AIDS prevention.
The concept of VISIONS grew from Murthy’s experience as a student in Florida, where he started a peer education program in which high school students mentored middle school students. At Harvard he decided to address the growing problem of AIDS in India, the country with the highest number of HIV-positive people, 4.1 million, according to UNAIDS.
VISIONS Worldwide [P.O. Box 24-8315, Coral Gables, FL 33124] now has seven chapters in India and the United States, including three in the Boston area, at Tufts, MIT and Harvard. The students who travel to New Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore and Sringeri for peer education work must raise at least $2,000 towards their expenses. They train in Florida for two weeks, learning to teach and facilitate discussions while becoming more familiar with the culture of India.
Murthy’s goal in starting the organization, he said, was “to generate change in local communities that would be sustainable, involve local leadership and create a mutually beneficial partnership between students in the United States and India.” He targeted high school-age students because, although HIV infection is spreading fastest among 15- to 24-year-olds, they seldom perceive themselves to be at significant risk. Said Murthy: “Young people don’t always relate what they hear about HIV and AIDS to themselves. Our goal is to personalize HIV in a way that will make individual prevention more effective and that will motivate students to create and support community AIDS activities.”