Tackling a South American Disease

Senior Starts Volunteer Organization to Bring Aid to Poor Areas

Harvard is full of students who aspire to someday make a difference in the world. But for Ariel S. Clapp '97, the time for change is now.

Last semester, Clapp, an Eliot House resident, founded the Southern Core Aid Network (SCAN), a non-profit organization devoted to improving living conditions, education and public health in poor rural areas of South America.

Currently, the primary focus of SCAN is to stop the spread of Chagas disease, an epidemic that kills 45,000 South Americans each year.

Chagas is caused by a parasite transmitted by a beetle that resides in the mud and straw roofs in housing in poor areas. Inside the human body, the parasite reproduces, and, after a 10-year incubation period characterized by pulmonary, digestive and neurological lesions, death usually ensues.

Clapp decided to create SCAN last summer in Chile, where she was doing biological research at La Catolica University in Santiago.


While traveling across the continent, she came upon a warning for Chagas in a guidebook. A doctor whom she knew told her about the disease, and he mentioned relief efforts were in desperate need of help.

"I just couldn't take the plane back to Harvard without doing something," Clapp said. "Especially after having been down there and witnessing all of the poverty."

Starting in July, Clapp's program will send volunteers to South America year-round, some groups in six-week shifts, others for longer. All volunteers must be 18 or older.

"College students are usually the most available," Clapp said.

Volunteers will perform a variety of tasks in South America, including implementing mapping programs to identify and monitor infested sites, improving housing and providing public information, education and community training.

With such a variety of activities, Clapp said, she is hopeful that significant progress will be made in the battle against Chagas in the next few years.

Because of a lack of funding, volunteers must pay for airfare and other costs. But Clapp said she is confident volunteers will find SCAN worthwhile.

"In order to help prevent the disease, living conditions in the neglected rural communities of South America must be improved," Clapp said. "By improving people's housing, you can see the immediate effects--that people have better places to live."

The World Health Organization currently ranks Chagas the third greatest major public health problem in the world, with 16 to 18 million people already infected and a million new cases reported each year.