Six years ago, almost to the day, I was in rural Ghana, lying under a mosquito net in a small, hot room, and I found myself in a state of feverish delirium so intense it is almost hard to describe. I was experiencing first-hand what millions of people suffer from every year: malaria.
The most striking thing about the whole experience was not how acutely sick I felt but was that, where I was in the world, malaria was just like a common cold. As a born and raised Canadian, it’s a bit hard to imagine writing a school note that cites malaria as the reason for absenteeism. Realizations and comparisons like this kept popping up over the time I spent in Ghana, as I learned and worked in the areas of entrepreneurship, youth unemployment and agriculture.
My experience in Ghana both humbled me and touched the depth of my soul as I was fortunate to witness incredible examples of humanity and compassion. Consequently, it also set me on a path of unquenchable desire to be a part of making the world less unequal.
So I went to do an MBA. This might seem like a strange choice after working in international development however it became very clear to me while in Ghana that business is driving change in the most obvious and intense ways across sub-Saharan Africa. I needed (I wanted) to have all these powerful tools at my disposal.
Flash forward 6 years from my Malaria experience and I am now comfortably seated in my office at the Canadian GSK headquarters in Mississauga. I have been with the company for three-and-a-half years and though my roles have changed (primary care sales to pricing and trade strategy), the reasons I joined GSK have not. Our top performance on the Access to Medicines Index and the multiple pioneering business models for developing countries (such as our tiered pricing model, community healthworker reinvestment, our malaria vaccine etc) – these are what drew me here.
In a few days, I will be in a different office. One that is 6,637 kilometres away. I will be joining the list of 500+ GSK employees who, since 2009, have been fortunate enough to be a part of the company’s skills-based volunteering program, Pulse; wherein a GSK employee is seconded to a non-profit partner, either locally or internationally, for a period of 3-6 months. The desired outcomes are that change occurs on three levels: within the individual, within the community they will be contributing to and within GSK upon return.
I am very excited that I have been placed with the global health organisation, PATH, in Dakar, Senegal, to work on national health strategy development. In an attempt to be concise and not initially overwhelm those of you who read this, in a nutshell:
- Malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis – these diseases are communicable, infectious, spreadable.
- Diabetes, hypertension, COPD, cancer – these diseases are non-communicable (NCDs), chronic, not passed on to others.
Many low and middle income countries are coping with a “double burden” of disease; progress is being made in lowering rates of communicable diseases however this progress is hindered by the skyrocketing rates of the NCDs. My work will be focused on NCD strategy development.
I think of NCDs in Canada – they are costly and difficult to manage. Many of them have reached epidemic status (think diabetes, hypertension). What is truly energizing about working on NCD strategy in Senegal is that there is a tremendous opportunity to avoid a similar fate as Canada and the US by working prevention, early diagnosis and treatment.
And for one last piece of motivation? Back to Malaria. Due to a worldwide, multi-sector effort, the global malaria mortality rate was reduced by 47% from 2000-2013 (source: World Malaria Day 2015). That is huge. In Senegal, the conversation for Malaria has moved from controlling seemingly unmanageable rates to elimination of the disease. This is the kind of impact that lights a fire in your belly.
Thank you for reading and I look forward to sharing this journey with you!