Lifesaving Textile Designs

Lifesaving Textile Designs

Textiles artist Eliza Squibb 13 TX is exploring new ways of using her design work to educate African women about crucial healthcare concerns. Last month she shared the good news that the GAIA Vaccine Foundation, the organization she has been working with since she was a student, won a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The new funding will further the work she has been doing with immunology expert Annie DeGroot to use textiles – a common mode of storytelling in West Africa – as a teaching tool to foster health and personal responsibility.

Through its Grand Challenges Exploration (GCE) grant program, the Gates Foundation funds individuals and small organizations worldwide that are breaking the mold in how we solve persistent global health and development challenges. As one of 61 GCE winners in round 13 of the grant program, GAIA VF has been recognized for showing  “unorthodox thinking” and promising innovation in global health research.

The idea Squibb and DeGroot plan to test with the new funding is whether dissemination of a printed textile, coupled with a media campaign led by influential local musicians, will motivate West African women to take more control of their own healthcare decisions. “In West Africa textiles are used to communicate and tell stories,” explains Squibb, executive director of GAIA VF. For instance, textile designs with images and words are made into clothing for both men and women and used to convey information ranging from warnings against infidelity to news of a death in the family. “This clothing actually functions almost the way social media does in the US,” DeGroot explains.

Squibb’s first design – a bright, African-inspired pattern incorporating illustrations of healthy female reproductive organs accompanied by calls to action in French – is being used to educate women in Mali about the link between HPV (human papillomavirus) and cervical cancer.

“Rates of cervical cancer are almost five times higher in Mali than in the US,” DeGroot explains, noting that the high rate is almost entirely linked to a lack of knowledge about HPV. She and Squibb found that less than six in 100 people in Mali are aware of the connection between HPV and cervical cancer – and yet, with more than half of cervical cancer cases proving fatal, it’s the most common cause of cancer deaths among women. Screening and prevention, particularly through the HPV vaccine, would definitely help save lives.

Last summer Squibb and DeGroot tested a prototype of their storytelling fabric in Mali. “We figured that doctors would pick up on the meaning of the textile right away, but we were worried that local women ­– who are often illiterate – wouldn’t understand it,” Squibb says. “But once we explained it, they said, ‘Yes, we understand. We can use this.’”

The next step in GAIA’s HPV vaccine initiative in Mali is to build awareness and encourage women to get vaccinated. The new funding from the Gates Foundation is enabling the nonprofit to produce Squibb’s textile design in Mali, which will create jobs for local businesses and tailors and add to what DeGroot calls “the fashion buzz about the cloth.” At educational sessions about HPV, women will be offered free cervical cancer screening and will receive enough fabric to make a garment, allowing them to play a personal role in helping to spread the word about the importance of vaccinations. A vaccination campaign will then follow later in 2015.

Although Squibb and DeGroot had planned to return to West Africa this fall to work on the project, the Ebola epidemic has put the trip on hold. People are more concerned about the most immediate crisis, which is overshadowing all other healthcare concerns right now, Squibb explains. But with that in mind, she’s now finalizing GAIA’s latest project: a storytelling cloth for Ebola healthcare providers depicting interlocked hands outfitted in protective gear.

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