State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Leader of the World Health Organization Praises Columbia’s New Public Health Program

Tedros Adhanom on stage
The World Health Organization’s Tedros Adhanom speaks at the World Leaders Forum at Columbia’s Casa Italiana, September 19, 2017. Photo by Francesco Fiondella

When your child has a fever, you probably visit the doctor, pick up a prescription, and in no time, your kid is back to normal. When a population is suffering a disease outbreak, experiencing a food shortage, or reeling from a natural disaster, the remedies are not so simple.

That’s why Columbia University is setting up a new program called Global Health Security and Diplomacy (GHSD). GHSD aims to “educate and train the next generation of leaders to understand the complexities of dealing with global health security and diplomacy in an increasingly interconnected world.” These leaders will be trained to prevent, detect, and respond to pandemics, food crises, natural hazards, forced migration, and chemical, biological, cyber, and climate-related threats.

Tackling public health problems requires working across governments and disciplines, which is why the program will draw on expertise from the Columbia University Medical Center, the School of International and Public Affairs, and the Earth Institute’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

President Lee Bollinger announced the new program on Tuesday evening at the World Leaders Forum, before welcoming Tedros Adhanom to the stage. Tedros is the director general of the World Health Organization, who greeted the program as ‘a gift’ to the organization and a partner in the fight against infectious disease.

During his speech, Tedros underlined the challenges of fixing of global health problems, which can be exacerbated by factors as wide-ranging as war and climate change and antibiotic resistance.

He emphasized the need for Columbia’s new program by pointing to examples like the Ebola outbreaks of 2014 and 2015, which “exposed fault lines in global health security that put us all at risk. Its severity was caused in large part by weaknesses in the health systems, which were ill equipped to detect or track Ebola, and were soon stretched beyond their limited capacity to respond.” But it wasn’t just the Ebola virus that killed people, said Tedros—after the epidemic was over, West Africans stopped receiving malaria vaccinations and other medical treatments. “The shockwaves of epidemics are always felt way beyond the devastated families,” he said, “and long after the last survivors leave treatment centers.”

Adhanom shakes hands with Wilmot James
Tedros shakes hands with Wilmot James, executive director of Columbia’s Global Health Security and Diplomacy program. Photo by Francesco Fiondella

What else can be done about these multi-faceted problems? Tedros suggested strengthening the health systems in the most fragile parts of the world, and in communities gripped by conflict. He also suggested privatizing research and development to speed up medical discoveries, investigating where the next pandemics may arise, and stress-testing response plans and logistics before a real health emergency breaks out. “I’m tremendously encouraged that a university with the stature of Columbia is launching a Global Health Security and Diplomacy program,” said Adhanom, “to equip future health leaders with the knowledge and skills to solve the complex challenges we will face.”

Not all of those challenges will be directly related to health; funding is also a concern. “I think the new administration in the White House has made it extraordinarily difficult to understand what’s happening on the financing side, and to ensure that basic health activities can still be met,” said Madeleine Thomson, senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society and co-director of the GHSD program.

Wilmot James, GHSD’s executive director, says he hopes Congress and the governments of other nations will set aside funds to help advance the public health agenda. Tedros made the incentives quite clear:

“When people are healthy, entire communities and nations thrive,” he said. “When children survive to adulthood, they become productive members of society. When women survive childbirth, they can return to working or caring for their families. And when communities are free from pollution, harmful products, and other causes of disease, they prosper.”

Note 9/22/2017: A previous version of this draft mistook “Adhanom” for Tedros’ surname. We have corrected the story. 

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Alf Lees
Alf Lees
6 years ago

Well done Wilmot James our South African expert and export. We are relying on you and the team to focus attention on this vital aspect of our futures.

Dr Frank Ashall
6 years ago

Columbia University is to be praised for its strong support and involvement in global healthcare and education.

I was a professor who taught medical students and biochemistry graduate students for four years in Ethiopia, and I would like to draw attention to certain human rights abuses by the Ethiopian government, of which Dr Tedros Adhanom was Foreign Minister from 2012 to 2016, and Health Minister from 2005 to 2012. Doctors, academics and journalists, among others, are being jailed for ethnic and political reasons, without due legal process.

I bring your attention to one example of the many human rights violations that affect education and health care negatively in Ethiopia: the case of Dr Fikru Maru, a cardiologist who established Ethiopia’s first heart hospital in 2006. He has now been suffering in an Ethiopian jail for over four years, without a conviction (cleared of all charges in May 2017, but now kept in prison on absurd new charges).

I believe that the students and most faculty at Columbia would be interested in the case of Dr Fikru, and I ask that the following petition is shared there. I believe that US students and faculty will support Dr Fikru because they stand for democracy and freedom. Democracy is not present in Ethiopia, so medical students and other students are unable to be Dr Fikru’s voice. Please consider bringing awareness and support from Columbia University.

Thank you.