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Health Matters Interview With Dr Thomas Sukwa the World Health Organisation Representative in The Gambia

Nov 11, 2008, 5:28 AM | Article By: Pa Modou Faal

1.Can you tell us about your Education and Work Experience?

Dr Thomas Sukwa obtained the Bachelor of Medicine & Surgery degree from the University of Zambia, School of Medicine in 1979 and worked as a Medical Doctor at NdolaCentralHospital (Teaching Hospital) in the Copperbelt Province of Zambia. He went on to study for the Master of Public Health degree at the Harvard University School of Public Health in Boston, USA where he majored in epidemiology in 1983. Upon his return to his native Zambia he joined the Tropical Diseases Research Centre (TDRC) as epidemiologist. The TDRC was one of the 3 global research institutes set up by the WHO/World Bank/UNDP Special Programme in Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) in 1977. At TDRC, Dr Sukwa's work focused on epidemiological and clinical research in Malaria, Schistosomiasis (Bilharzia), and Human African Trypanosomiasis. He rose through the ranks to become Deputy Director in 1986. In 1987, he went on to study for the Doctor of Public Health degree in International Health at the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health in Baltimore, USA. Upon graduating in 1992, he returned to Zambia to continue his research and clinical work at TDRC and the NdolaCentralHospital. His research work culminated in making significant contributions to the development and testing of new antimalarial drugs; scientific understanding of schistosomiasis morbidity in communities; and in designing control strategies for endemic tropical diseases, among others. He became Director of the TDRC in 1994, a post he held until he left to join the University of Zambia, School of Medicine as Senior Lecturer in Community Medicine in 1999.

He joined WHO Regional Office for Africa (WHO/AFRO) in January 2000 as Medical Officer in-charge of Malaria case management. In this post, Dr Sukwa was instrumental in supporting countries in the conduct of efficacy studies for first-line antimalrial drugs (chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine) and developed a framework to guide countries in the adoption of new anti-malarial treatment policies such as Artemisinin-based Combination Therapies (ACTs). In 2005, he was given a new responsibility to steer the setting up of a new Communicable Diseases Research Unit within WHO/AFRO. During his tenure as Regional Advisor for Communicable Diseases Research, he accomplished the setting up of the unit and supported the convening of High Level Meetings in Abuja and Accra in 2006 to garner political support for research for health and for developing countries to play a pivotal role in the TDR research agenda. He was re-assigned to Head the WHO/AFRO Tuberculosis Unit in March 2007, a position he held until his appointment as WHO Representative in the Gambia in July 2008.

2.What are your Priorities for the Health Sector during your tenure in The Gambia?

Given that cost-effective interventions/tools/strategies for malaria control are now available, it is hoped that malaria could be driven to the pre-elimination phase in The Gambia. With the prevailing high political commitment to malaria control in the country the WHO is determined to work with government and other partners to mobilise support for universal access to cost-effective malaria prevention and control interventions such as Insecticide Treated Nets (ITNs), ACTs, Insecticide Residual Spraying (IRS), and Intermittent Preventive Therapy (IPT).

Reduction in maternal mortality through provision of interventions such as emergency obstetric care; making blood transfusions available and accessible; and mitigating delays in referral of high risk pregnancies; is another priority for WHO's work in the country in collaboration with DOSH.

Lastly, WHO has a key role to play in ensuring that research results benefit populations in which the research is conducted. It is the critical role of WHO to broker meaningful national level partnerships that ensure that local research results not only provide the evidence base, but that they feed into policy and practice for the benefit of local communities. Therefore, the WHO Country Office will support efforts aimed at fostering and strengthening of such partnerships among the research and disease control communities in The Gambia.

3. How do you rate Gambia's Performance towards attainment of the health related MDG's?

Based on the reports that I have read since coming into the country, I am informed that The Gambia has already attained targets for MDG 2 (universal primary education), MDG 3 (gender parity in primary and lower basic education) and is on track for some targets for MDG 4 (e.g measles immunization coverage), and MDG 6 (children sleeping under ITNs), but unlikely to attain MDG 1 target (poverty and hunger). The challenge now is to ensure that the gains made in achieving or towards achieving the targets is sustained as we approach 2015.

4. Thank you for granting Health Matters this interview Dr Sukwa.