Global Health Leaders Urge Graduates to Work Toward Health Equity

From the dustiest roads in Africa to the crowded streets of Mumbai, this year’s Global Health Sciences graduates set out to find out what it means to make a difference in the world.

Some went in pairs, some solo, to the most remote areas of the planet.

Sepúlveda's Keynote Address

What they found was that global health is complex: it involves working in teams to treat the young and old, gaining trust, sharing knowledge and finding solutions to critical health problems. Global health encompasses economics, politics, agriculture, anthropology — and is often uncomfortable from long hours of travel on bumpy roads to primitive bathrooms and pesky bugs. At the end of the day, though, the global health graduates realized that all humans share common needs for clean water, food, shelter and sleep. 

The 29 new graduates of the Masters of Science in Global Health were called upon to take leadership roles to defend the most vulnerable to achieve health care equity worldwide.

“Like it or not, we are now interconnected in all sectors of society,” said UCSF Professor John Ziegler, MD, MSc, who directs the graduate program. “It is our job in global health to assure that the next generation inherits a healthier planet.”

UCSF Chancellor Emeritus Haile Debas, MD, former dean of the UCSF School of Medicine, who proposed this first-in-the-nation program a decade ago and launched it with seven students in 2008, echoed Ziegler's call to action, as did the keynote speaker, Jaime Sepúlveda, MD, MPH, DrSc, the incoming executive director of Global Health Sciences.

A Legacy in Global Health

Debas called the new graduates “a credit to the university,” providing a legacy for future classes as the Masters of Science program grows.

Jaime Sepúlveda and John Ziegler

Jaime Sepúlveda, incoming executive director of Global Health Sciences, greets Professor John Ziegler at the Aug. 5 graduation ceremony of the 2011 Class of Masters in Science in Global Health at UCSF Mission Bay.

UCSF Global Health Sciences trains students to become future leaders in global health as health care providers, policy experts, educators, researchers, and development professionals who address the world’s most daunting health challenges. The program helps connect students with faculty, staff and international partners offering opportunities to carry out their goals throughout the world.

This year’s graduates embody diversity across every measure, hailing from a range of personal, cultural and educational backgrounds. Begun only as a program for existing UCSF students, Global Health Sciences extended its reach in 2009 beyond the health sciences campus. Students in the class of 2011 included 19 women and 10 men and spanned fresh college graduates to mid-career professionals — surgeons, physicians and social scientists — looking to integrate global health expertise into their work. Next year’s class will have 37 students, Debas said, selected from 250 highly qualified candidates.

Fieldwork pursued by the class of 2011 included excursions to Borneo, Brazil, India, Tanzania and Thailand (fieldwork map). Each of those, as captured in a student video shown at graduation, gave them a new or renewed understanding of how much of the world’s health is affected by poverty and inequitable access to the basics, such as vaccines. That is a lesson Global Health Sciences leaders hope the students will never forget.

“People are suffering right now with burdens we can solve,” Sepúlveda said during his commencement address.

“You are the next generation of leaders in global health,” he said. “My advice to you is to develop a life-long love for learning. Keep learning all you can about your field, but also learn about history, if only not to repeat mistakes.”

"We should make immunological equity a reality in all corners of the world. We should give every child the same opportunities starting in life."

Jaime Sepúlveda, incoming executive director, UCSF Global Health Sciences

Sepúlveda reflected on his own experiences related to national vaccinations — including his 1989 visit to a Mexican village in which every child had died of measles. He said the tragedy of the 1989 measles epidemic, which killed 6,000 children in Mexico but none in the United States, led to creation of Mexico’s Universal Vaccination Program — a program Sepúlveda himself led with “immunological equity” as its philosophical and political driver.

Within three years, he said, the concept was a reality, ultimately eliminating polio, measles, diphtheria and rubella from the country despite its deep economic disparities. The effort proved that it is possible to solve seemingly insolvable problems.

Renata Abrahao

Renata Abrahao earned a Masters in Science degree in global health.

Sepúlveda urged the graduating students to defend the most vulnerable in the world, retain their sense of urgency to make a difference, and seek out leaders and mentors to guide them.

“A child nowadays — depending on where he or she is born — can expect to live as much as 94 years if born in Monaco, or as little as 32 if born in Swaziland,” he said, attributing that in part to access to vaccinations. “This sad reality is something that should deeply disturb all of us.”

Don’t be complacent, Sepúlveda told the global health graduates.

“We should make immunological equity a reality in all corners of the world,” he said. “We should give every child the same opportunities in starting life” by eradicating polio, measles and every other eradicable disease.

“We have the technology, the know-how and the resources. We can do it. And because we can, we must.”

Slideshow by Kevin Eisenmann

Photos by Susan Merrell