Honorary doctorate for first African to head the WHO

South Africa’s University of Pretoria (UP) has conferred an honorary doctorate on the first person from Africa to head the World Health Organization (WHO) as director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in recognition of his work as a global health expert and scholar.

As one of the most visible faces during the fight against COVID-19 in recent years, Ghebreyesus, who has been leading the WHO since 2017, galvanised manufacturers of medical supplies to work with the WHO to scale up access to personal protective equipment for health workers and, in collaboration with health partners, the WHO launched the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator initiative to bolster production, development and equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and treatments, UP said in a statement.

Ghebreyesus was in South Africa to receive the award on 22 April at the autumn graduation ceremony of the 115-year-old institution. After the ceremony, he took to Twitter to share pictures of the ceremony and wrote a few words: “In 1997, Nelson Mandela was awarded an honorary law doctorate here at @UPTuks for his commitment to equality, justice and reconciliation. Today, with great pride and humility, I received an honorary doctorate at the same place and am grateful to join the University of Pretoria family,” the director general wrote.

UP’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Tawana Kupe, described him as a “model of global health leadership”.

Professor Tiaan de Jager, dean of the faculty of health sciences at UP, said Dr Ghebreyesus’ notable achievements in global health leadership – particularly in the areas of malaria, HIV/AIDS and maternal and child health – have been immensely impactful.

“His enormous contributions globally in the fields of public health and epidemiology as a scientist, global health expert, diplomat and advocate, together with his innovative, bold dynamism to reshape global public health, have been unmatched,” added De Jager.

Focus on SDGs

As the Minister of Health in Ethiopia (2005 to 2012), Ghebreyesus expanded the country’s health system to give millions of Ethiopians access to health care by means of health financing mechanisms, investing in health infrastructure and building the health workforce.

As Minister of Foreign Affairs (2012-16), he led negotiations of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, during which 193 countries committed to providing funding towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

At the WHO, Ghebreyesus has focused on initiatives that will “have measurable impact in countries. The public health agency’s five-year strategic plan (2019-23), for instance, centres on “promoting health, keeping the world safe and serving the vulnerable”, and places emphasis on supporting countries to achieve health-related SDG targets.

The plan also focuses the WHO’s work on meeting its ‘triple billion’ targets: 1 billion more people benefiting from universal health coverage; 1 billion more people better protected from health emergencies; and 1 billion more people enjoying better health and well-being. Ghebreyesus’ work was highlighted by UP in its statement about the event.

A career in health

According to a biography supplied by the WHO, Ghebreyesus graduated from the University of Asmara with a Bachelor of Biology, before earning a masters in immunology of infectious diseases from the University of London, a PhD in community health from the University of Nottingham and an Honorary Fellowship from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

After his studies he returned to Ethiopia where he first worked as a field-level malariologist.

In addition to his work in the Ethiopian government, he held many leadership positions in global health, including as the chairperson of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, chair of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, and co-chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Board.

The WHO said Ghebreyesus has published articles in journals and received awards and recognitions from across the globe. These include receiving honorary fellowships from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (2012), the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland’s School of Nursing and Midwifery (2020); and honorary doctorates of medicine from Umea University, Sweden (2018) and the University of Nottingham and Newcastle University (both in 2019).

Ghebreyesus was also the first non-American to receive the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Humanitarian Award (2011) and, in 2018, he was made a Grand Officer of the National Order of Benin, awarded the National Order of the Lion of Senegal and was the recipient of the Oswaldo Cruz Medal of Merit in recognition of his services to public health in Brazil.

In 2020, he was included in Time magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of the Year, and received the African of the Year Award from African Leadership magazine.