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The 20 years since his graduation from the University Of Washington School Of Public Health, Dr. Christopher J. Elias told graduates at the school’s 2010 commencement, have been “the most remarkable two decades in the history of global health.”

The next 20 years, Dr. Elias, PATH’s president and CEO, predicted, “will be even more remarkable.”

Checking off the challenges

“Domestically, we have just begun the very messy process of reforming our health care system,” said Dr. Elias, who received the school’s 2010 Distinguished Alumni Award at the June 11 ceremony. “Internationally, we need to finish the task of reducing morbidity and mortality from infectious disease and improving reproductive health and begin to deal with the next wave of chronic disease burden and injury prevention.

“You’re going to be busy,” Dr. Elias told graduates.

The last 20 years, and the next

Since his 1990 graduation, Dr. Elias said, development assistance for health has increased fourfold. World leaders routinely include global health as a key component of “smart power” and talk about the need for development to be on a more equal footing with defense and diplomacy.

As president of PATH for the past decade, Dr. Elias has overseen an organization that, together with partners, is using this new commitment to global health to develop and deliver affordable solutions to some of the world’s most serious health problems.

“We have seen malaria incidence fall by over half in places like Zambia,” he said. “We will soon deploy a vaccine for meningitis in sub-Saharan Africa that costs just 40 cents a dose. And just this morning, our team left North Korea, where they worked with the government to successfully immunize all the at-risk children under six with an affordable Japanese encephalitis vaccine.”

A way to make a difference

Dr. Elias also spoke of the circumstances that brought him to the University of Washington. After finishing his training in internal medicine, he worked in refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border. While the work often was rewarding, he said, the volume of illness and repeated cases of pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, dengue, and malnutrition began to wear on him.

“I sensed that poverty, poor water and sanitation, the absence of human rights protection, and lack of meaningful livelihoods were much more powerful determinants of health and illness than what I could to in the clinic,” Dr. Elias said.

“That was when I decided to come here and learn the discipline of public health,” he added. “Frankly, it was the first time I really knew why I was in school.”

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Posted June 28, 2010.