Over the past three decades, physician and 1993 Rolex Laureate Aldo Lo Curto, has spent part of each year far from his medical practice in northern Italy, donating his time and skills to communities around the world that have little or no access to doctors. This Italian medic, who is also keenly interested in learning about indigenous healing techniques in the regions he visits, has in recent years added Madagascar to the list of over 40 countries he has visited as a volunteer travelling doctor
When Lo Curto first visited Antsirabe, a city in the heart of Madagascar known for its thermal springs, in 2006, he immediately noticed the busy fleet of over 5,000 brightly decked-out, hand-pulled rickshaws, or pousse-pousses, providing cheap and convenient transport to tourists and locals. Yet the rickshaw-pullers make barely enough to live on, running all day or even all night to earn less than US$5.
“I was shocked at the extreme poverty these men and their families face,” says Lo Curto. “This has no place in the 21st century.” He decided to make Antsirabe a regular destination in his annual travels in order to help the local people.
In May 2010, Lo Curto visited Madagascar for the fourth time in as many years, spending 10 days in Antsirabe, a city of about 180,000 inhabitants. His luggage included French-language versions of the illustrated health manual that earned him a Rolex Award in 1993. Adapted for Madagascar, the manual is now widely used on the island. He also took with him medicine and vitamins bought at a reduced price from a French pharmaceutical company. Lo Curto gave them to a non-governmental organization that he works with, Amitié Madagascar Italie, which distributes the supplies in its small dispensary in Antsirabe to help fight parasitic diseases and vitamin deficiencies.
Accompanied by a local nurse, an interpreter and three Italian volunteers, including his 37-year-old son Alessandro, Lo Curto treated about 500 people in Antsirabe – mainly children, pregnant women and rickshaw-pullers, some of whom needed minor surgery. “Pullers often have no shoes and run barefoot for up to 50 kilometres a day,” Lo Curto says. “If they hurt their feet, they cannot work. And, as they have no health insurance, they cannot provide income to their families who live in the rural areas.”
Lo Curto has also set up a micro-credit scheme with a group of local women who administer the loans and repayments. “We provided loans of 100 Euros (US$139) to 15 women. The loans have to be repaid within a year. The women use them to set up small businesses, selling meat, coal or second-hand clothes, or doing sewing work.”
While in Madagascar, Lo Curto visited the village of Tritriva to advance one of his favourite causes: promoting knowledge about and use of local medicinal plants. This had its roots in his native northern Italy, where high-school students in Como interviewed their grandparents about the medicinal plants used in the mountainous region. The result is a book, Erbo-Lario, published in May 2010 in Italian, French, English and Spanish, which includes drawings and information on how to use these local plants. The students donated the profits from sales of the book to help Lo Curto launch a similar project in Madagascar. “With the help of a local doctor, Tritriva students have already identified 50 local medicinal plants,” says an enthusiastic Lo Curto. “This helps create bridges across generations and between young people from different countries.”
As soon as he returned from Madagascar, Lo Curto left Italy for the Amazon and then for Mongolia, where he also works with local communities. He plans to return to Madagascar next April or May, thanks to the support of his patients. “We have this tradition in Italy of giving a dove-shaped panettone [sweet Italian bread] as a gift for Easter,” he explains. “I ask my patients to devote the cost of a panettone to help needy communities in Madagascar and elsewhere.”
Learn more about Aldo Lo Curto