In three weeks leaders from all over the world will travel to Geneva, Switzerland for the annual World Health Assembly. For the first time in history, countries have the opportunity to elect an African and a former Minister of Health to lead the World Health Organization. While the other two candidates in this race are accomplished, Dr Tedros Adhanom of Ethiopia is the best choice for Director-General. There has never been someone more qualified to lead WHO at this pivotal moment in its history.
I first got to know Dr Tedros when I was working for the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator in 2005. My first trip to Ethiopia was for a PEPFAR conference in Addis Ababa. I listened with great interest as Dr Tedros spoke passionately about the changes he planned for his country through a health extension worker program. They were putting women at the core and creating a health development army. The program would bring preventative care to rural villages and better prepare for outbreaks and health emergencies.
Time would pass and I would hear about the great success of the community-led transformation of Ethiopia's healthcare system. In 2010, as a senior advisor at USAID, I returned to Ethiopia as part of a three-country trip focused on U.S. global health investments. It was then I would see these results firsthand.
My colleague Zeke Emanuel and I traveled hours outside of Addis Ababa to reach small villages like Wossilo and Gombore. We witnessed the incredible impact of the health extension worker program on families in remote areas. In particular, Wossilo is a huge success story in malaria prevention and control. Health extension workers promote "model families", which means the families have bed-nets over every bed and have sprayed inside their home. A decal outside shows how the family was compliant with these and other health post recommendations.
What I took away from our visits was how revered the young women were who have been trained as health extension workers. The women are normally around 20 and have earned respect from the community elders, who came to welcome us at each health post we visited. Zeke and I returned to Ethiopia in 2016 as part of a short course with Wharton MBA students. We traveled to Lume Woreda and visited the Shara Dibandibe health post and households. Again we saw data on display that showed increased healthcare coverage and decreased mortality rates in the area. The effort had been sustained and was expanding. It is no wonder that since the inception of the program, Ethiopia has reduced child mortality by two-thirds, HIV infections by 90%, mortality from malaria by 75%, and mortality from tuberculosis by 64%.
On both trips, we had the opportunity to meet with Dr Tedros to share reflections. I was impressed by how carefully he listened to feedback and his detailed knowledge of the areas we visited. On the second trip described above with Wharton students, Dr Tedros was Foreign Minister and spent two hours of his time speaking to students and answering their questions. He then asked for the students’ advice for him as Foreign Minister. This request became their final assignment.
These were not my only interactions with Dr Tedros, or my only trips to Ethiopia to see its success. Ethiopia was a co-host along with India and the United States for the 2012 Child Survival Call to Action, and I was in charge of communications. In the lead up to this event, there is one moment in particular that I will always remember. I had arrived early one morning to staff a conference call with my boss, USAID Administrator Raj Shah. Raj was talking to a small group of global advocates who had questions about whether the roadmap to end preventable child death truly had country ownership. Raj listened closely and at one point briefly peaked his head out the door to say something to his assistant. Within minutes, Dr Tedros had been connected to the call from his mobile phone. He spoke passionately about how the approach to end preventable child death is what he has been doing in Ethiopia, and he welcomed the increased focus. Anyone who knows Dr Tedros will tell you he never held-back when advising donors on how their money should be invested. His validation was a key driver to successfully launch the roadmap to end preventable child and maternal death.
After the Call to Action, Ethiopia was the first country to hold a follow-up event: the African Leadership on Child Survival meeting. African nations gathered to recommit themselves to child and maternal survival. Again Dr Tedros walked the talk, showcasing Ethiopia's success story while translating a global goal to the regional level.
Over the years, I have collected a few Ethiopian scarves from Dr Tedros. First I thought it was simply protocol to the visiting delegation, but now I understand the grace and humbleness behind the gifts. Not often do you encounter a leader who has impacted so many lives and stayed true to his roots. It is without a doubt that Dr Tedros is the leader the WHO needs at this critical time. Electing Dr Tedros is the best way to ensure better health for all the world's people.