Graduate in international bid to help eradicate killer disease

Wondu Gebresilasie

Published on 21 October 2019

A North East graduate is helping lead efforts to finally eradicate polio in some of the most deprived parts of the world.

Wondu Gebresilasie, who completed his MSc in Public Health at University of Sunderland in 2018, is now working for the World Health Organisation (WHO) in a bid to save lives.

The 40 year old is playing a key role in WHO’s Global Polio Eradication initiative, one of the most ambitious global public health initiatives of our time.

Wondu believes the skills he picked up at the University are now helping him as he works in Pakistan, one of the three countries in the world still with an endemic circulation of poliovirus.

Originally from Ethiopia, Wondu was born and raised in Arero, one of the remotest districts in the country characterised by, among others, under-development, high rates of extreme poverty, and low access to primary health care, education and clean water.

He said: “Before joining WHO Polio program in Pakistan, I was working on various global public health centred programmes in different developing countries including Ethiopia, South Sudan, Liberia, Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, Pakistan, Lao PDR, Lesotho and Swaziland, with different international development organisations.

“I decided to Join WHO because I was fascinated by the Global Polio Eradication initiative. In August 2014, WHO accepted my job application that I submitted one year earlier and proposed me to work in Pakistan as technical officer/filed epidemiologist for the polio initiative.

“I happily accepted the offer and decided to go to Pakistan mainly for the reason that the country was, and still is, one of three with an endemic circulation of poliovirus and characterised by complex challenges, such as security issues, hard-to-reach areas, and multidimensional social barriers to global public health initiatives.”

After working with WHO for three years, Wondu decided to take up an MSc in Public Health at the University of Sunderland, which he believed would enhance his knowledge and skills in global public health practice and research.

He added: “I felt this would prepare me to take on more complex and challenging roles in the field.

“After finishing my MSc, WHO called me join the programme in Pakistan once again; however, as I was rather motivated to further my studies to doctoral level, I could not accept the offer at the time.

“WHO again called me for the same programme and this time I accepted the offer, not only because my doctoral study program is at stage where I can be more flexible, but also the programme in Pakistan is at a critical juncture challenging us to think critically and reflect purposefully in order to bring things back on track.

“I needed to be part of it, as I believed I could contribute more significantly using my new skills and knowledge I gained from the University.

“My time at Sunderland was very enjoyable and productive for not only did it exceed my expectations, but also supported me for the kind of life I hoped to live.”

The world is almost free from polio, with the exception of three countries. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the last areas for the virus. Nigeria, however, is on the path to becoming a polio-free country, as of 2016, the country has not witnessed a single case.

The latest surge in polio cases across Pakistan is both problematic and worrying at the same time. Given the country’s last year’s polio performance, policymakers were hopeful of its total eradication. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.