2018 Heroine of Health, Dr. Rose Leke, has fought to eradicate polio, improve malaria prevention, all while empowering women and mentoring the next generation of women leader in public health
At the World Health Assembly this year, GE Healthcare and Women in Global Health, a movement that strives for greater gender equality in global health leadership, are joining forces to honor and celebrate women in global health. We sat down with 2018 Heroine of Health, Professor Rose Leke, who is being honored for her work in immunology research and policy. For nearly three decades, Dr. Leke has been a leader and role model within the global health community. Her groundbreaking research encompasses broad areas of immunology, parasitology, and global health, with a particular focus on malaria, in addition to her significant contributions to polio eradication across the African continent. Through her work, Dr. Leke has shown tremendous leadership in advancing gender equality and empowering women in the field of public health, science and research.
Professor Leke, tell us more about the work that you lead across global health.
Professor Leke: For nearly three decades, I’ve been a member of the faculty of medicine and biomedical sciences at the University of Yaounde in Cameroon, carrying out research on malaria, and for nearly two decades I have been very involved in polio eradication across the African continent. I currently chair the African Regional Certification Commission for Polio Eradication, a commission of 16 experts from five WHO Regions. This commission is responsible to lead the continent towards certification. It carries out country visits, receives and reviews annual reports from each member state in the African region, and scrutinizes documentation required to achieve and maintain a polio-free status. I also run a research program on malaria in pregnancy and newborns based at the Biotechnology Centre of the University of Yaoundé conducted in collaboration with scientists at Georgetown University and the University of Hawaii. Through this program, we have been able to conduct research in malaria within communities in Cameroon specifically in pregnant women and have provided some basic needs to some of these underserved communities such as potable water.
Why is polio eradication so vital to community health, particularly on the African continent and in other low-middle income countries?
Professor Leke: After the eradication of small pox globally, the next big target to be undertaken was poliomyelitis. From 1988, when the Polio Eradication Initiative was instituted, every country on the African continent was endemic and every year about 75,000 children were paralyzed for life by the wild polio virus. Today Africa is 99% of the way to being polio- free. No cases of wild polio virus have been detected since 2016. So tremendous progress has been achieved over the past thirty years. The endgame is not easy, but it is close. In Africa, one does not see young children paralyzed and handicapped as was the case in the past, and this is really a milestone. But, no complacency can be tolerated, surveillance must continue to be of high quality, and immunization programs need to be continuously optimized.
How about with malaria? What changes have you seen in the work you’ve been doing over the last three decades?
Professor Leke: As for malaria, we are now talking not so much about control as has previously been the case, but about elimination. There is a reduction in the number of deaths, and many small countries are moving towards elimination. Eleven countries in the world are still high burden countries, ten of these in Africa. So, a lot still has to be done. We work in communities and help in the collaborative implementation of interventions that will help reduce the burden for the population to have better health. My dream is for an Africa permanently rid of polio as is the current case, and for a malaria-free Africa to come. That is my dream.
Why do you think gender equality is important to improving health outcomes for communities?
Professor Leke: In light of the gender based social inequalities and discrimination affecting women in Africa such as women having lower income, lower levels of education, young women being forced into early marriage and several cultural biases, many women and girls do not have access to healthcare and education. Training young girls and women and providing them with education, gives them a better understanding of health practices. Health education helps them make informed decisions about their own personal health care, maternal care, which in turn helps them avoid preventable diseases or potentially dangerous procedures. As crucial pivots of the African family structure, having healthy and informed women is most beneficial to the overall health of their families and communities.
What does female leadership bring to global health?
Professor Leke: We do know that promoting gender parity leads to better health and development outcomes. There are not enough female leaders in influential leadership positions in global health and particularly not enough African women. It is therefore critical and important to empower the next generation of leaders to fill the gap of women at the top. This can be done through mentoring and skills building opportunities, like we are doing in the Higher Women Cameroon Consortium, which I am heavily involved in. I believe that with such programs and efforts, African women can be encouraged to bring their valuable contributions to the global table. Achieving a culture of respect and equality for all individuals would require not only involvement by governments but also recognition of its importance by families, communities, and society at large.
Professor Leke is one of nine women being recognized at this year’s World Health Assembly as part of the Heroines of Health honors. Learn more about the 2018 Heroines of Health here.