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WMU research improves quality of life in Ecuador

Feb. 16, 2007

KALAMAZOO--Dr. Ann Miles, professor of anthropology at Western Michigan University, has been awarded a four-month Fulbright Scholar grant to conduct research on the social and cultural dimensions of experiencing a debilitating illness.

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Miles recently returned from her first in a pair of two-month trips to Cuenca, Ecuador, where she is studying how chronic illnesses like lupus are affecting the lives of people in the region. By examining how individuals in different social and economic situations understand, manage and cope with prolonged disease and disability, she hopes to help physicians improve in their understanding and treatment of patients living with sickness.

"As the population becomes more urban and people live longer, chronic illnesses that are generally associated with developed nations are beginning to emerge," Miles says. "Before now, the people there did not live long enough to develop these kinds of illnesses, or they died quickly from them."

The emergence of chronic disease in the Ecuadorian society is taxing the health care system, patients and their families in unique and troublesome ways. Individuals suffering from debilitating illnesses can be medically managed, but treatments are expensive and results are never assured. Patients' families are often forced to make painful economic choices, and there remains a great deal of confusion and difficulty in gaining access to appropriate care and treatment. Since the concept of having a lifelong illness is new to Ecuador, it might take some time for the society to explore and understand the cultural meanings and importance of these experiences.

"I became interested in lupus when an acquaintance of mine, a woman I have known since my first field study in 1989, was diagnosed with the disease," Miles says. "She comes from a poor family with few economic resources, and her illness provoked me to begin asking questions about how those on the margins of Ecuadorian society were adjusting to the emerging health challenges."

Miles wanted to make a difference, and by the looks of it, she is well on her way to doing just that. Her research project has been met by an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the patients and professionals she has grown close to since starting her research, and she is currently working with a group of concerned physicians and families to establish a non-profit foundation that will educate and assist Ecuadorians affected by lupus. In the event that Miles still isn't busy enough, she can start preparing for the three upcoming lectures that have already been scheduled for her return trip to Ecuador, where she plans to discuss patients' perspectives and their health care challenges with the academic and medical communities.

"I believe that sharing personal experiences and insights goes a long way in making other cultures understandable and accessible, so my research has always informed my teaching," Miles says. "It is my goal to help students understand that the social dimensions of an illness experience, including poverty and inequality, can be just as important to the patient as the biological dimensions. This is a lesson that applies to every culture."

Miles, who joined WMU in 1994, has been working in Ecuador for more than 18 years. Many of her studies there have focused on the intersection of gender and class, popular health conceptions, and the political economy of alternative medicine. Her teaching concentration is in medical anthropology. Miles earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Syracuse University, a master's degree from Columbia University and an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago.

WMU has the state's largest number of Fulbright Scholars this year, with six out of Michigan's 26 for the 2006-07 academic year. A total of 14 Michigan schools had faculty members awarded Fulbrights, with the University of Michigan and Michigan State University each receiving three awards and the remainder spread out around the state.

Media contact: Tonya Hernandez, (269) 387-8400, tonya.hernandez@wmich.edu

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