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Toronto Star - www.thestar.com

Matshidiso Moeti steps into WHO’s most challenging position

The job was already daunting when Dr. Matshidiso Moeti set her sights on it more than two years ago: becoming the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa. But then came the mother of all health crises — Ebola.

Photo: Dr. Matshidiso Moeti. Photo Credit: Salvatore Di Nolfi / Associated Press

By: Jennifer Yang

Feb 02 2015 - A former inmate at Ontario’s new superjail has launched a human rights complaint against province, alleging he was held in solitary confinement for more than 90 days last year after other inmates protested about his HIV-positive status.

The job was already daunting when Dr. Matshidiso Moeti set her sights on it more than two years ago: becoming the first woman to lead the World Health Organization's biggest, costliest and most challenging region, Africa.

But then came the mother of all health crises — Ebola. Last March, the office she had volunteered to lead suddenly found itself in the throes of an unprecedented epidemic and facing greater scrutiny than ever.

These challenges all awaited Moeti on Sunday, when she finally stepped into her new job as the WHO's regional director for Africa. But speaking to the Toronto Star late last week, the 60-year-old public health veteran seemed largely unfazed.

“I don't feel, ‘Oh my goodness, what did I do? Now I have to look after the Ebola situation!' ” Moeti laughed in a phone interview from Geneva, where she was appointed by the WHO's executive board last week following her nomination in November.

“It is a very daunting context in which I'm taking up office. But I'm very hopeful.”

The world has high hopes for Moeti, too — and it will be watching her closely. Long before Ebola, Africa was already grappling with a long list of overwhelming health problems: HIV, health-worker shortages, widespread malnutrition, and high maternal and child mortality rates, to name a few.

But with Ebola, a harsh spotlight has been shone on the WHO's Africa office, which has been accused of bungling the response to the outbreak. In a leaked WHO memo, senior officials complained that its African outposts were hamstrung by “politically motivated appointments” and respected medical journal The Lancet accused the WHO regional office for having “failed catastrophically in its mandate.”

The WHO is now undergoing reforms to try to fix the systemic problems revealed by the Ebola outbreak, including the shortcomings in its African office. Under this unprecedented pressure, Moeti is not only expected to help bring the epidemic to an end, but to start the difficult process of rebuilding the three West African countries hardest hit by the outbreak. (Ebola has now infected more than 22,300 people and killed 8,921, almost exclusively in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea).

Moeti, however, is optimistic. She notes that Ebola may actually help, rather than hinder, her efforts to achieve long-running goals in Africa.

“The Ebola outbreak has highlighted some of the priorities that really needed to have been addressed some time ago,” she said. “In a paradoxical way, it offers an opportunity . . . and will give new impetus to investing in health security and health systems in a sustained way.”

Many leading global health figures — including Dr. Peter Piot, a co-discoverer of Ebola who has been critical of the WHO's Africa office — have expressed confidence in Moeti's ability to tackle such massive challenges.

Her track record also reveals a woman who has already overcome substantial obstacles. Born into a crowded two-room house in South Africa during the apartheid era, her early schooling was shaped by the Bantu education act — a racist policy that ensured African children would receive inferior educations designed to prepare them for a life of servitude.

After her father moved the family to Botswana, Moeti followed in her parents' footsteps and went on to become a doctor, training at the University of London and the prestigious London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

As a public health practitioner, she has worked for the Botswana Ministry of Health and three UN agencies, including the WHO, where she led the Africa office's efforts during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

One of Moeti's goals is to make the African country offices more accountable and staffed with people hired on merit, not political promises; the region's past issues with nepotism, she insists, are “history.”

But Moeti hopes her lasting legacy will be fixing the very problems that gave rise to the Ebola disaster in the first place: the inequitable distribution of health.

“More equity and fairness — that's an area in which I'm intending, perhaps foolishly, to put a lot of my attention,” she said. “I think it's central torwards helping deal with all other health areas.”

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Source: Toronto Star

"Reproduced with permission - Torstar Syndication Services"

Toronto Star
www.TheStar.com


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