Liberia was in the midst of a devastating Ebola outbreak when Bernice Dahn, the country's chief medical officer, went to visit her ailing special assistant at his home on Sept. 20, 2014. When the 55-year-old father of eight died from the disease less than a week later, Dahn put herself into quarantine for 21 days. She kept her constituency aware of her situation, as well as many from her cohort at the University of Washington. Dahn, now Liberia's minister of health, has been fulfilling her vision to build a resilient health system by deploying thousands more community health workers.
Meanwhile, in Peru, Patricia Garcia became health minister on July 28, 2016, and vowed radical change.
“I need to take off the shackles, remove the obstacles and transform the system,” she told The Lancet last summer. Garcia first came to UW in the early '90s as a postdoc fellow in infectious diseases. She stayed to get her master’s degree in public health and has collaborated with UW colleagues ever since.
Both Dahn and Garcia are featured speakers at a symposium on campus Feb. 8: "Global Health: Next Decade, Next Generation." The daylong event marks the 10th anniversary of the UW Department of Global Health, as well as the anniversaries of seven other Seattle-based global health organizations.
“These amazing women are powerful reflections of UW’s commitment to transforming health around the world,” said Judith Wasserheit, chair of the UW Department of Global Health. “We now have alumni working with partners to improve health in 28 countries.”
Dahn: Determined to help Liberia
Liberia was emerging from years of civil war in 2003 when Dahn returned to the UW for graduate study. She and her family had endured one two-month spell in the country’s capital, Monrovia, living with constant gunfire and shelling around their home.
UW colleagues say Dahn likely had many chances to leave permanently, but was determined to go back to Liberia after receiving her MPH in 2005 from the international health program, a precursor to the Department of Global Health.
“She was unwavering in her plan to return home to do whatever she could to help rebuild the country,” said Aaron Katz, a mentor to Dahn and a principal lecturer in the UW School of Public Health.
Dahn was soon named deputy minister of health and set about “bringing her country and its health care system back to life,” said Mary Anne Mercer, senior lecturer in global health and another of Dahn’s mentors. Mercer noted Dahn’s concern about access to health care in rural areas, particularly during obstetric emergencies.
Dahn’s long list of achievements include spearheading postwar revitalization of medical, nursing and midwifery schools; establishing an agency to regulate medicine and health products; creating a seven-year initiative to improve and expand the public health workforce; and developing the country’s first national cancer control strategy.
During the Ebola response, Dahn was promoted to minister of health. She coordinated the national response to the epidemic, including developing treatment protocols and infection prevention, organizing trainings and mobilizing resources and restoring routine health services.
Stephen Gloyd, UW professor of global health and health services, said colleagues in neighboring countries have told him that the Ebola epidemic would not have been so severe had Dahn been in charge of health across the region.
“She is a truly outstanding graduate whose work in the past decade has literally saved thousands of lives,” Gloyd said.
Garcia: Willing to take on difficult situations
During medical school in Lima, Garcia worked as a singer and guitar player and could have been the next Shakira (a popular Columbian musician), said King Holmes, the founding chair of the UW Department of Global Health.
But at the advice of a Peruvian colleague, Holmes invited Garcia to UW to train as an infectious disease fellow at UW Medicine in 1994.
At UW, Garcia became board-certified in infectious diseases and received her master’s degree in epidemiology before returning to Peru to work on several studies involving preventing sexually transmitted diseases. A study with the Gates Foundation used point-of-care diagnostics in Peru to screen for syphilis and prevent transmission to newborns. The diagnostic tool was able to circumvent a cumbersome process that took six to seven visits and became a model for treating syphilis in Latin America, said Holmes.
Garcia became dean of the school of public health at Universidad Peruano Cayetano Heredia in Lima and then director of Instituto Nacional de Salud (National Institute of Health) in Peru.
Joseph Zunt, UW professor of global health and neurology, was recently invited by Garcia to attend a meeting of experts to come up with a solution to the debilitating effects of mining, one of the biggest industries in Peru. Garcia convened experts from all over the world for a two-day working session to create guidelines on the best strategy for the surveillance, treatment and prevention of the health effects of mining.
“I think she’s fantastic,” said Zunt. "She has an innate sense of what is good for the country for health and sticks to it.”