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Indy nonprofit, law firm help curb childhood diseases

September 9, 2015
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Lauren Braun in Cusco, Peru (Photo courtesy of Alma Sana Inc.)

Lauren Braun has been helping safeguard the health of children in impoverished countries for years. A small band she’s developed could bring those efforts full circle with a pro bono assist from a small band of Indianapolis lawyers.

Braun is president and founder of Indianapolis-based nonprofit Alma Sana Inc., which is attempting to widen the use of a tiny, rubber bracelet that gives mothers and health care workers reminders of needed infant and childhood vaccinations.

In places such as Cusco, Peru, paper reminders of a child’s vaccination schedule are quickly lost in the day-to-day movements of subsistence living, Braun said. Cusco was the site of the first field test for the bracelets, and health care workers and parents loved them.

alma-bythenumbers-090915.jpg“Ninety-one percent of moms said the bracelets helped them remember their children’s vaccinations,” she said. Small enough to fit around a newborn’s ankle, the bracelets are also universal.

“The reason they’re so innovative and uniquely situated to succeed is there are no words on them,” Braun explained. She designed the bracelets with geometric shapes representing various vaccines to be administered at different times in a child’s first years of life. When children are inoculated, health care workers punch a tiny hole through the corresponding vaccination symbol. When the first year’s bracelet is completed, the child graduates to a bracelet for vaccinations in the next years of life.

Braun sees a limitless upside to the bracelets, and her enthusiasm is shared by prestigious medical institutions and organizations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation granted Alma Sana (Spanish for “healthy soul”) $100,000 to carry out its work, and other donors have partnered with the organization. Building on its initial success, Alma Sana is extending the reach of the bracelets with more efforts starting soon in Colombia, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Family ties

Braun’s father, Christopher J. Braun, is a name partner at Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP, which is providing pro bono legal service for Alma Sana. Helping facilitate the efforts in a legal sense has been its own kind of expedition into unknown territory.

“This is just not what your typical 26-to-27-year-old is doing,” Christopher Braun said of his daughter, whose work with Alma Sana also figures into her master’s thesis at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, considered among the top public health research institutions in the world.

“This is a true social experiment, and it’s an experience we haven’t done before,” he said. “For us as lawyers, you want to assist that passion.”

Plews Shadley has a notable health care practice but hadn’t represented an organization participating in international public health missions. Even filling out the 501(c)(3) papers was new for the lawyers, and that process required a bit of a scramble in order to meet deadlines for the Gates Foundation grant.

Christopher Braun said the nonprofit status was approved in what seemed like record time. He thinks it could be because he was dealing with a sympathetic father at the IRS. “I played the dad card, and he came through in a big way,” Christopher Braun said. “As a dad, I’m very proud of her and all she’s accomplished.”

‘Public good’

Eckerle Eckerle

Stephanie Eckerle, a partner in Plews Shadley’s health care practice, has also been involved in helping facilitate Alma Sana’s mission. She and Christopher Braun serve on the nonprofit’s board of directors.

“This is an opportunity for us to work with a public health concern that’s working for the greater good,” Eckerle said. The legal work involves everything from drafting agreements with sponsoring and participating organizations outlining how work will be done in the field to rental contracts to house staff. “You have to do it with an appreciation of what the local customs are,” Christopher Braun said.

As the mother of a 1-year-old herself, Eckerle said helping Alma Sana spread its mission and the notion of the lifesaving nature of the work has been special. “It’s just been an invaluable opportunity.”

Eckerle said that working with Alma Sana also is sure to hone her legal skills. She’s picked up lessons in international law, contract law and other areas that she said would help in her practice.

Details the lawyers work out also must include risk management and planning for how to evacuate workers in the event of an illness or crisis, they said. It’s also vital to educate staff on safeguards they should take to protect themselves.

For Lauren Braun, the legal help lets her focus on expanding the reach of her nonprofit’s mission and fundraising efforts that range from direct partnerships to crowdfunding.

“They’ll alert me to things coming up that are not on my radar,” she said.

alma-090915-guadalupe-15col.jpg A medical worker places an Alma Sana vaccination bracelet on the ankle of an infant in a clinic in Cusco, Peru. The bracelets allow mothers to ensure their children receive necessary childhood inoculations at scheduled intervals. (IL Photo/Photo courtesy of Alma Sana Inc.)

Realizing a need

Lauren Braun said polio still exists in Pakistan and in Nigeria to a lesser extent. And while much of the developing world lacks adequate access to preventive medicine, there’s another problem. In some places, when vaccines arrive, they go unused and must be thrown out.

A big part of that problem is parents who miss follow-up vaccination appointments for their children, and Lauren Braun believes the bracelets can help make sure less vaccine goes to waste. Another problem is nurses sometimes have to go looking for children to ensure they’re vaccinated — time taken away from providing care at clinics.

“It turns out, implementation is the hard part,” she said. Getting the bracelets in use where the need exists takes organization, partners, donors and support to set up and sustain what has to be a long-term commitment.

But it also turns out that Lauren Braun’s work with Alma Sana is being noticed. Among other accolades, her undergraduate alma mater, Cornell University, presented her the Human Ecology Recent Alumni Achievement Award in 2014. Her work also has been recognized by the United Nations Children’s Emergency Relief Fund.

The group’s founder is confident the bracelets will continue to be rolled out where they can have the greatest impact. She said health care workers and parents like the simplicity of the bracelet and what it represents for children in developing nations.

“There’s nothing else like it out there,” she said. “It sort of sold itself to people.”•

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