Dr. David Heymann receives the Heinz Award in the Human Condition for having the vision to help the world prepare for widespread infectious diseases.
A physician-turned-international health advocate, Dr. David Heymann has provided foresight, wisdom and leadership to better prepare nations around the world to fight the spread of contagious disease. As the Assistant Director-General for Health Security and Environment at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, he is a driving force behind widespread reforms in reporting and controlling the proliferation of infectious disease.
Through his forceful and insistent leadership, Dr. Heymann has elevated WHO's role as a global clearinghouse of information on disease outbreaks around the world, a new important status for the United Nations agency and one that positions it as a first line of defense against potential biological threats - both those that are naturally occurring and those that are deliberately caused by terrorism. By overcoming both internal administrative hurdles and the considerable reluctance of some foreign governments to share disease-related information, his efforts have dramatically improved global disease surveillance systems and the rapid response to disease outbreak.
Prior to joining WHO's staff in 1988 to work on AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, Dr. Heymann spent 13 years in sub-Saharan Africa with the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he specialized in a number of diseases, including the investigation of the first outbreak of the Ebola virus. After a recurring outbreak of Ebola in Africa in 1995, he recognized the deficiencies in the handling of widespread disease outbreak, particularly its tracking and control. A year later, he set up an emerging infectious disease program, adopting the use of the Internet and other modern communications, as well as a network of institutions across the globe capable of monitoring and responding to new outbreaks.
The effectiveness and necessity of this surveillance and response program became dramatically clear in 2003 with the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Hong Kong, Vietnam, China and Canada. As a result of Dr. Heymann's initiative - as well as his ability to persuade a disparate group of governments, laboratories and businesses to share information - WHO is widely credited with coordinating the global containment of the disease.
With clear vision and unrelenting zeal, Dr. David Heymann is today widely considered to be the most accomplished American physician working in the field of international public health. He has pioneered the use of global epidemiological surveillance to detect and respond rapidly to threatening outbreaks of infectious disease throughout the world, and has had a major impact in elevating the World Health Organization's role as a global leader in monitoring the spread of potentially catastrophic disease and helping forestall the prospects for pandemic. The efforts he has led, and will continue to lead, to anticipate and to prevent and treat communicable diseases, provide better and longer lives to people around the world.
Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.
10/22/2007 - Acceptance Speech
I am honoured and I'm humbled to receive this award - humbled because this award represents many on the frontline who are working day and night to prevent and protect the human condition - it's Red Cross workers, working on Ebola or Marburg outbreaks in the Congo, it's community volunteers trudging through dangerous areas in Afghanistan to give polio drops to children to prevent their disease, and it's nurses and doctors in Toronto, in Hong Kong, in Singapore, who are working to save the lives of those with SARS and to prevent others from getting the disease. The SARS outbreak truly showed our vulnerability to the spread of new diseases, the economic and the social disruption that these diseases can cause. It also showed how effective the world can be, by working together to stop the spread of a new disease and to put it back in its box.
In addition to the battle against infectious diseases - I like to discuss infectious disease issues with students throughout the world. And they always ask "How can I become involved in exciting infectious disease outbreaks?" My answer is simple - you must be at the right place, at the right time, and you must say yes. I'm very fortunate - I have a wonderful wife and children who always say yes - and I have parents who prepared me for the job.
And tonight I find myself again at the right place and at the right time. The generosity of the Heinz award will help further protect the human condition, by creating partnerships between public health institutes in the north and in the south. These institutes in the south will eventually be able to detect and stop those diseases where they are occurring, but until then no one country organization can do it alone. We must work together, to control and stop the spread of infectious diseases and stop the human suffering and death that they cause.