Dr Flavia Bustreo was appointed Assistant Director-General for Family, Women’s and Children’s Health on 1 October 2010. At the end of her tenure, Flavia shared with us her memories of studying at the school and how her career has developed since graduating.
Written by Dr Flavia Bustreo, Former WHO Assistant Director-General – Family, Women’s and Children’s Health.
I have very fond memories of my time at LSHTM, where I pursued the MSc in Communicable Disease Epidemiology in 1993-1994. I remember that one of the first things that struck me was the convivial atmosphere between professors and students, as I was coming from the very hierarchical Italian system where I had studied for my M.D and worked as a physician. I clearly recall one of my professors –Paul Fine, who still teaches communicable disease epidemiology at the school – telling me that I should call him Paul instead of Professor Fine. That was novel for me at the time, and I believe it epitomized the coming together of faculty and students as one community with a common purpose: to improve health and well-being worldwide.
Since my time at LSHTM, I have worked in many organizations, health areas, and regions of the world. Throughout the early years of my career, one thing crystalized for me: people, not diseases, need to be at the centre of health services and health interventions. My work kept bringing me back to my passion for upholding the health and human rights of those who are so often overlooked: women, children and young people.
This passion has been my driving force in various different roles – from working as a Medical Officer for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Sudan, to leading work on child survival in UNICEF and the World Bank, to helping to forge a partnership between hundreds of organizations, institutions and governments to synergize and catalyse our work across the continuum of care – establishing and growing the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child health.
Since 2010, I have been the Assistant Director-General for Family, Women’s and Children’s Health at WHO. I am very proud of what we have accomplished for women and children during this pivotal period in time. Recognizing that progress on maternal and child health was lagging behind, a committed group of individuals and organizations got together to spur action and investment on areas that had long been neglected and under-funded by the global community.
We developed a strategy on women’s and children’s health, built a movement, and mobilized record resources. And the results have followed, with accelerated rates of reduction in child and maternal mortality since 2010, and with more women, children and young people not only surviving, but thriving. This progress has been remarkable, but the journey isn’t over yet: every year we still see 5.6 million under-five deaths, 1.2 million adolescent deaths, and over 300,000 maternal deaths – the great majority of which are preventable.
Another key theme which constantly re-emerges is the centrality of human rights in global health. Health cannot be seen as optional, or health services as charity. The right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health is recognized in the constitution of WHO – it is part of our very DNA.
Throughout the past decade, I have advocated for the necessity of a human rights-based approach to health, and documented the evidence such an approach is not just the right thing to do, but it also leads to better health outcomes. Last year, we assembled a landmark group of high-level champions – including former Heads of State and sitting Ministers of Health – to champion the health and human rights of women, children and adolescents, and bring their recommendations to both the World Health Assembly and to the Human Rights Council – a first. One achievement of which I am most proud is successfully lobbying Ministers of Health and Environment for the inclusion of the right to health in the Paris Climate Agreement– an accord that tackles the defining challenge of our time.
Throughout my career, I have built upon skills and knowledge learned at LSHTM, and just as importantly, I have benefitted from a wonderful global network of LSHTM colleagues and friends. With colleagues at the school, I have collaborated on policy work, research and advocacy, including research on community child health in Sudan, and the establishment of Countdown to 2015, a unique project to track key global health data for maternal and child health in the 75 highest-burden countries.
LSHTM is an incubator for great ideas and innovative learning, and was an important stepping stone in my career in global health and those of countless others.
Images courtesy of Flavia Bustreo. The included photo is a Reunion in Geneva with colleagues from the LSHTM class of 1994, Alison Grant and Lalit Kant.
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