Former Executive Director of the World Health Organization Jacob Kumaresan, M.D., gave a talk at the Nott Memorial last Thursday, April 12, 2018. Organized by the Leadership in Medicine Student Advisory Council, this was the second holding of the Annual Speaker Event, which was founded to connect students in medicine with current leaders in healthcare to learn about their personal experiences. The event attracted many students, faculty members and staff.
Kumaresan originally came from Sri Lanka and received his medical degree from the University of Madras in India. He then pursued his master’s and doctoral degrees in Public Health at Tulane University and went to work at the World Health Organization (WHO) office at the United Nations in New York as the Executive Director from 2011 to 2015.
Starting his talk, Kumaresan presented the lessons he learned in his career in Public Health by using three examples from three different countries.
He categorized the lessons into four main ideas: “Process, Vision,” “Unmask Inequities,” “Leave No One Behind” and “International Service.” To delve into his first lesson, the Former Director brought up the United Nations’ 2000 vision of eliminating poverty and the 2015 goal of sustainability to be achieved by 2030.
“That’s a great vision, a great goal to have in mind. However, in spite of the lofty goals and targets that we have, we need to focus on the journey,” Kumaresan said.
He then illustrated the long process with which Sri Lanka, his home country, eliminated malaria. According to Kumaresan, malaria used to be a major problem in Sri Lanka. The disease, transferred by mosquitoes, could lead to disabilities and deaths.
Long before the establishment of WHO, the people of Sri Lanka had to set up a center for malaria prevention to help eradicate the contagious disease. Thus, as Kumaresan informed the attendees, mosquito pesticides and education programs were launched, leading to near malaria-elimination status.
However, in 1967 and 1968, a surge in malaria led to a country-wide epidemic, and Sri Lanka had to change their strategies, as mosquitoes grew resistant to the pesticides.
Going through many struggles and 30 years of internal conflicts, 2016 marked the year the WHO certified Sri Lanka malaria-free.
The former WHO Director then presented his second lesson and example from Japan. According to Kumaresan, Japan’s rate of tuberculosis appeared higher than that of developed countries. Moreover, “substantial gaps exist between and within cities,” Kumaresan stated. There existed, the Public Health specialist pointed out, great disparities between tuberculosis statistics in Osaka and Sapporo, a countryside province with the lowest TB rate in the nation. While having very good hospitals, Osaka’s TB rate was almost three times Japan’s national average, Kumaresan said.
The poorest ward in Osaka, in which citizens were mostly homeless day workers, had a significantly higher rate of TB than the rest of the city. Kumaresan illustrated the social inequities hidden in public health statistics, and how public health workers should aim for the long-run prevention by eliminating inequities.
Kumaresan’s last example was from Ethiopia, dealing with trachoma, a preventable cause of blindness. As the doctor claimed, Ethiopia had the world’s highest rate of blindness at 1.25 percent. To fight this, a program called “SAFE STRATEGY” was launched to build more sanitary toilets in the country. Kumaresan also referred to the cultural practice of making women using the toilets at night, after other family members, in Ethiopia.
Having latrines at home helped women gain a measure of equality to men. The latrines not only prevented trachoma but also empowered the women, who became the most enthusiastic contributors to the project, Kumaresan said. Ethiopia had what Kumaresan called a “latrine epidemic,” where 233,846 latrines were built in two years. Kumaresan attributed the success to the women, believing that empowering women equated with empowering communities.
Kumaresan concluded by showing the audience videos and highlighting the qualities of a public health worker and an efficient changer.