Mitchell Wolfe spoke on U.S. strategy, particularly at the U.S.-Mexico border, for neglected tropical diseases and health in general at the Baker Institute for Public Policy for “The United States and Mexico: Addressing a Shared Legacy of Neglected Tropical Diseases and Poverty,” a conference organized by the Baker Institute’s Center for Health and Biosciences and the Mexico Center in conjunction with Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine and the End Fund, on Sept. 29.

Neglected tropical diseases are a group of parasitic and bacterial diseases that infect many people, especially children and those living in poverty, according to the Global Network for Tropical Disease.

Wolfe is the deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Global Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“I am a doctor and an epidemiologist,” Wolfe said. “Part of my job and our office is being health diplomats.”

Wolfe said his office works to connect public health and foreign policy and draw that connection to advance policy.

Wolfe further expanded on his definition of his job to explain diplomacy in his work. He said diplomacy is getting things on people’s agendas that might not have been there previously by working with foreign governments, individuals, NGOs and other entities to ultimately protect the health and security of Americans.

According to Wolfe, the 2014 Ebola outbreak was an example of why the Department for Health and Human Services and his office specifically must maintain a global sense of diplomacy in their work.

“The Ebola outbreak should remind people that diseases don’t respect borders,” Wolfe said. “At HHS, we have an obligation to act globally and have agencies such as the National Institutes of Health with depth and breadth. There is a real demand for us [at the Office of Global Health] to engage as diplomats with global stakeholders to ensure an organized and coordinated response to health issues.”

Wolfe said he views the U.S.-Mexico border as a unique region due to its population, geography and disease patterns.

“The U.S.-Mexico border is a very dynamic region,” Wolfe said. “It contains about 50 million largely underserved individuals suffering from poverty and facing poor health outcomes. The patterns of disease here are distinct from the rest of the U.S.”

Wolfe views NTDs as a source of tremendous suffering because of their disfiguring and sometimes fatal impact. According to Wolfe, they are neglected because they persist only in the poorest, most marginalized areas.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell and Mexico’s Secretary of Health Mercedes Juan Lopez head the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission. Wolfe deals with the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission through his office.

“This commission was the result of a bilateral agreement to address health and wellness at the border and improve surveillance and reporting,” Wolfe said. “We [the Office of Global Health] and the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission are attempting to address health disparities and understand the ‘why,’ why there is such a concentration of NTDs at the border, why programs like ours that link public health and policy development are so important.”

The Smith Clinic in Houston’s Greater Fifth Ward, a neighborhood that falls below the poverty line for a family of four, provides access to health care to Houston’s underprivileged, a population often impacted by NTDs.

“Poverty is an overwhelming risk factor for NTDs,” Wolfe said. “It includes the lack of window screens, high unemployment and significant shortages of health care providers. The Smith Clinic is providing similar services here in Houston to what we are offering at the border.”

Baker Institute for Public Policy intern Anjali Bhatla attended the talk and saw the conference’s importance for Houston and Rice.

“Houston was the perfect city for this talk given that South Texas has the burden of NTDs,” Bhatla, a Baker College junior, said. “Hopefully this conference will spur interest in NTDs in Rice undergraduates.”