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A Passion for Global Health and Development

By Priya Khanna -

The United Nations estimates that 650 million people (10% of the world’s population) live with a disability.  The number of people living with disabilities is increasing as more people live through disease, premature birth, and conflict.  In many parts of the world, people with disabilities and their families experience social stigma, and endure tremendous challenges in accessing health care, education, and community life. 

Since third grade, Dr. Rebecca Scharf knew that she wanted to work in global health. As she began to travel around the world, she realized that it was children with disabilities who were often without healthcare.  While working at an orphanage for children with hearing impairment in Jamaica, she saw the importance of access to sign language education.  While working in Zimbabwe, she found that children with physical disabilities who didn’t have access to wheelchairs weren’t able to participate in family or community events outside the home.  And time spent in Ecuador showed Dr. Scharf the challenges of caring for a child with unique needs when there weren’t enough physical therapists or nutritionists to provide guidance.  Dr. Scharf decided to pursue training in Pediatrics so she could work with children around the world.  After residency and fellowship training in Developmental Pediatrics, both in New York City, she gladly accepted an opportunity at UVa to combine her passions for medicine and global development. Working with Dr. Richard Guerrant at the Center for Global Health, Dr. Scharf studies early childhood diarrheal illnesses and malnutrition, and examines their effects on cognitive development in later years in Brazil and several other research sites around the world.

One of Dr. Scharf’s current opportunities is working with the Special Hope Network in Lusaka, Zambia. This organization, founded by Eric and Holly Nelson in 2010, cares for children with disabilities by equipping families and caregivers to provide these children with a loving home, holistic health care, and exceptional education and therapies.

Data shows that in some parts of the world, 80% of children with disabilities die by their 5th birthday due to stigma and lack of health care and resources. Children may be hidden from society and unable to participate in their communities. The Special Hope Network is trying to change attitudes about disabilities and embrace children of all abilities.  Dr. Scharf is thankful to learn from them, and to work alongside her colleagues Dr. Paul Matherne of Pediatric Cardiology and Dr. Paige Pullen of the Curry School of Education.

The Special Hope Network has established two community centers to provide education, nutrition and therapy for children with disabilities. Families come to the community centers three times a week, for two hours a day. Through group discussions, preschool activities, and therapies, children and their caregivers receive services and support.

This summer, eight UVa undergraduate students will work with the Special Hope Network in Zambia with support from the Jefferson Public Citizens Award and the Center for Global Health University Scholar Award. Four students will focus on teaching teachers how to adapt their lesson plans to each child’s specific learning needs. The other four students will focus on identifying adaptive equipment needs for the children, and finding creative ways to provide these items using local resources.

The impact of this program, Dr. Scharf says, is evident in the smiles of mothers. Parents of children with disabilities are often excluded from society or blamed for their child’s special needs.  This organization creates an accepting community where mothers can safely bring their children and find support and encouragement.

Dr. Scharf’s advice for students pursuing work in global health is to do what you love, and to work with a team of talented and like-minded colleagues. Working in global health can be challenging. A vibrant and passionate team creates better solutions, and makes good work even more enjoyable and rewarding. Dr. Scharf is very thankful for everyone in the Center for Global Health at UVa!

For more information on the Special Hope Network, visit their website: