Winter Olympics medallist bikes in India for TB & MSF

"I think if more people knew or understood the gravity of the global TB situation then more people would try to help..." Helen Upperton, Olympic Medallist on raising awareness about TB.

February 10 - Silver medallist from the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Helen Upperton, biked over 3 days covering 230 km in India to raise awareness about tuberculosis and Stop TB Partner, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in January 2014. In an email interview, Ms. Upperton spoke to us exclusively, about her understanding of and commitment to TB, before she headed off to Sochi in her role as a sports broadcaster at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

I became involved with MSF Canada through an accidental meeting on an airplane. I was sitting next to Mr. Unni Karunakara, at that time the current International President of MSF. He spoke so passionately about the organization that I became very interested to learn more. We stayed in touch and 2 years later he invited me to join him on an awareness and fundraising campaign in India. When I agreed to be a part of that incredible event I learned a lot about TB and the projects that MSF is involved with in India.

I knew very little. We are so lucky that in Canada we are sheltered from many global issues. Of course I had heard of TB, I knew that it most commonly affected your lungs and respiratory system, I also knew how it spread....I had no idea about DR-TB and the global issues that are arising around this illness.

I like to travel with a very open mind. I had never been to India before and I was very excited to see the country. I was also very excited to learn more about MSF and the issues that we were advocating for. I expected to be a changed person. Travelling always does that to you. And I expected to learn a great deal.

Cycling though a country gives you such a clear understanding of the culture and the lives the people are actually leading. We were far off the beaten path and unlike any touristy-like trip, so I was truly able to get a better understanding of the culture and some of the difficulties that are a part of it. Cycling also gives you an acute understanding of over crowded cities. I can tell you that I have never been more intimidated on a bicycle than trying to navigate traffic in some of the large corded cities of India!

I was so overwhelmed in Mumbai. The sheer size and population of the city takes your breath away. It is such a mixed up jumbled mess of beauty and wealth and extreme poverty and sadness. It was a really fascinating place to visit. As a whole I found India to be an assortment of extreme opposites all coexisting together in one place. I can fully appreciate the concern regarding the treatment and prevention of illness like DR-TB in a place like Mumbai. The living quarters of millions of people are so close that an outbreak would be catastrophic.

I don’t think people understand how easily is can be passed to others and how extensive the treatment is. It is 6 months for TB and 2 years for DR-TB. These statistics are staggering. I think general awareness is lacking. I had no idea how extensive the testing is now, to make sure patients are put on the right drugs. In Mumbai, they are discovering more and more new cases of DR-TB. If the patient is mis-diagnosed and put on the wrong medication not only can they continue to infect the people around them, including loved ones, but they create an even more drug resistant strain of the illness. I cannot believe that in this day in age we don’t have better diagnostic and treatment systems in place for an illness that people have been battling for so long.

I think awareness is very important. Athletes, celebrities, anyone with a platform or a microphone in front of them can advocate for a cause that they believe in. I think if more people knew or understood the gravity of the global TB situation then more people would try to help.

I’m very committed to my goals, it must have something to do with my career as an athlete. I have been doing quite a large media campaign around the bike trip and what I learned while I was there. I will continue to share this story and encourage people to donate and to learn. I hope I will be able to reach my goal sooner than later. I definitely won’t give up.

I think that MSF is an incredible organization and I’m very eager to learn more about the work that they do internationally. I am very interested also in some of the projects they are doing are malnutrition and women & children. However I think that if an opportunity arose for me to continue to help with awareness around TB, I would definitely do whatever I could. I have been very fortunate in my life and I often feel sad how little we truly understand about many issues facing the global community. I am very happy I was able to see this with my own eyes through MSF in India. To be able to come home and tell people that this issue is real and its BIG... it has a much larger impact.