Lack of clean water and inadequate sanitation is the leading cause of disease worldwide. In rural Vietnam, 85% of women and children have parasitic diseases and the highest rate of child malnutrition in Asia. Dr. Suni Peterson is changing that.
Dr. Peterson, PhD, a Professor in the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant University, is an expert in health psychology and health behavior change, and now a Fulbright Scholar Specialist.
Dr. Petersen knows that changing health practices will reduce the rates of infection; and for the past 6 years she has been taking teams to the hill villages in Vietnam to prevent parasitic disease, a program she named Listening to Dragonflies.
This program has been so successful that Dr. Petersen has just been named a Fulbright Scholar Specialist. The Fulbright Specialist Program promotes linkages between U.S. scholars and professionals and their counterparts at host institutions overseas. In addition to her work in Vietnam, other countries will be able to request Dr. Peterson and her team; she has already received invitations from Myanmar, Indonesia, and other Asian countries. She will now be able to implement her program across the world.
Since 2010, her team has reached over 7,000 people. The team has trained 63 health advocates and 27 village leaders who have visited over 900 families; and her students have gone to hundreds of schools and taught over 3,500 children about germs. There have been significant improvements among the participant families, chief among them is an increase in the most vital aspects of preventing parasitic disease, knowledge and home hygiene. The knowledge about germs and transmission of disease and changes in cleanliness, including use of treated water, use of bleach, and maintaining adequate distance between humans and animals has been transformative.
While there are great societal advantages to her work, Dr. Petersen says that, for her, the work has been transformative. Among her favorite memories is a very special moment during one of the post-training ceremonies.
At the end of each series of workshops, the team has a celebration and gives out Alliant certificates. During one particular ceremony, the team sat around the home of a local Co Tu Man. The Co Tu are an ethnic group of about 83,600 who live in eastern Laos and central Vietnam. There were 17 people sitting on bags of rice in this humble home, managing to converse through interpreters and a few shared phrases. Many of the participants only spoke the native language, which has never been written down. Dr. Peterson wanted to thank the host for his hospitality and asked how you say “thank you” in Co Tu. The host informed her that there was no word for that in their language. The Co Tu vocabulary is limited since they never meet any strangers in their remote village— that is, except for Dr. Suni Peterson and her team. That’s why when Dr. Petersen asked how they say “hello” in their language, the host widened his smile and said that the way they greet people is by exclaiming “Hello, Suni.”