From rural Ghana to WHO: the road to universal health care
“One of the challenging aspects of my work has been getting my medical colleagues to appreciate that health is much more than medicine”
Even a cursory reading of Dr Anarfi Asamoa-Baah’s highly impressive CV reveals just how very adaptable, talented and committed he is to health, not just in his native Ghana but across the world. His nearly 40-year career has seen him adeptly move from clinical work to academia, ministry posts to global health, and then most recently to pandemic response.
This remarkable list of achievements, and the notable influence he has had across several fields, makes Dr Anarfi Asamoa-Baah a real inspiration for this year’s graduands as they embark on their own careers, and an ideal candidate for an LSTM honorary degree.
Before he had reached the age of five, Dr Asamoa-Baah’s nickname was ‘doctor’, and it was apparent that health was to be his calling. He remembers:
“I was particularly fascinated with butterflies, birds, and the functioning of the human body. My favourite subject has always been biology and it was very obvious, even at a young age, that I will be a doctor.”
This early enthusiasm led, almost inevitably, to the University of Ghana Medical School where Dr Asamoa-Baah graduated with a MBChB degree. Clinical work followed, and it was while working as a doctor in charge of a small mission hospital in rural Ghana that he developed an interest in public health and working with poor communities. Dr Asamoa-Baah became a District Medical Officer and within two years was appointed as Deputy Director of Health Services responsible for communicable disease in the most populated region of Ghana. And then Liverpool came calling.
“After my house job, I opted to do a rural posting, and it was during this time that my interest in public health was heightened. I hosted a colleague, Dr Martinez, who was then a student at LSTM. He had come to Ghana for his attachment. Around that time, I was offered a WHO Scholarship to do a postgraduate in Public Health and was torn between LSTM and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.”
Being a football fan, and with a gentle push from Dr Martinez, Dr Andrew Cassels (then a lecturer at LSTM), and Dr Katja Janousky (who was working at WHO in Geneva), Dr Asamoa-Baah opted for LSTM. He describes the two years he and his wife spent in Liverpool, first as a master’s student and then as a lecturer, as “one of the best times of my life” and the start of a relationship that has endured. He explains:
“It [LSTM] opened my eyes and mind to the incredible academic rigour, the quality of the faculty and the rich experiences one acquires from such a wide-ranging experience.”
Post-graduate qualifications in health planning, health economics and health policy followed before Dr Asamoa-Baah returned to Ghana in 1990 to head the Policy, Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation Division of the Ministry of Health. His appointment as Director of Medical Services followed in 1997 and proved a momentous period for Ghana’s health service. Dr Asamoa-Baah remarks:
“I am proud I was part of the movement to advance the strengthening of the District Health Systems in Ghana, in the establishment of the Ghana Health Service, the National Health Insurance Scheme, the Food and Drugs Authority, and for establishing a mechanism of partnership with external contribution to the health sector in Ghana.“
During this period (1988-98), Dr Asamoa-Baah also served as a WHO consultant and advisory committee member for primary health care, health systems strengthening, research and training in tropical diseases, and the expanded programme on immunisation.
1998 saw a permanent move to WHO when Dr Asamoa-Baah worked as a Senior Policy Advisor to the Director-General. His roles included Assistant Director-General for External Relations and Governing Bodies, Health Technology and Pharmaceuticals, Communicable Diseases, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria programmes, and tropical diseases. Then in 2007, Dr Asamoa-Baah took up the post of Deputy Director-General of WHO.
As you might expect from someone grounded in both medicine and public health, the work Dr Asamoa-Baah led at WHO aimed to deal not only with the medical side of disease treatment but also with the social, economic and cultural aspects and their long-term repercussions. Universal health care remains an important focus for him.
Throughout this period at WHO, Dr Asamoa-Baah’s links with Liverpool remained and included collaborations on a range of projects including neglected tropical diseases, HIV, TB and malaria.
With such an illustrious career at WHO there must be many contenders for Dr Asamoa-Baah’s list of particular achievements, but he reflects…
“I have been very lucky to have worked with really excellent people. It has been an exciting journey for me… I take pride in the fact that I worked with the late Mr Kofi Annan in establishing the concept of the Millennium Development Goals (you will recall that three of the eight goals were health sector goals)… I am happy with the role I played in establishing GAVI (the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization), and the Global Fund for HIV, TB and Malaria… I am particularly proud of my involvement in the NTD movement, in the drafting of the Sustainable Development Goals, and in the promotion of Universal Health Coverage.”
In 2015, Dr Asamoa-Baah returned to Liverpool to deliver the LSTM Leverhulme Lecture. During his presentation he reflected on the improvements achieved in many global health markers over the previous 15 years. With great prescience he also said that the world was becoming a smaller place, in future infectious diseases would spread widely, and that unless every country was prepared, no country would be prepared.
In 2020, that prediction came true and the global health picture changed markedly, as did Dr Asamoa-Baah’s role. Ghana’s President Akufo-Addo appointed him as the Presidential Coordinator for the government’s Coronavirus Response Programme, where he is currently responsible for coordinating all aspects of Ghana’s Covid-19 response. Given his experience, unwavering dedication and commitment to universal access to quality health care it is a challenge to which Dr Asamoa-Baah is well suited.