What do malaria, global health and main street journalism have to do with one another? Dr. Claire Panosian Dunavan, a Feinberg alum, wove together her experience in these three fields Tuesday morning for the annual alumni lecture at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Panosian had no medical expertise when she spent the summer of 1972 in Haiti. Little did she know the images of malaria, malnutrition and severe diarrhea she encountered would lead her to a career in global health.
Panosian, currently a professor at UCLA in the infectious disease department,
recounted stories from her experiences studying malaria in Africa and Asia. She also talked about her accidental role as a medical journalist and how it enables her to spread awareness about global health.
In 1993, Panosian was invited to participate in a major malaria policy report that recommended subsidizing artemisinin drug combination treatments for the entire global market.
“To see how the policy played out, both perfectly and imperfectly, has shaped my education,” she said. Subsidies for these drugs remain crucial for malaria control today.
Experts underestimated mortality from malaria, according to a February report from The Lancet. “The study shows that mortality from malaria is about twice what we thought it was,” Panosian said. “It’s very worrisome.”
During Panosian’s work with control policies, she noticed a surge of interest in the field of global health from young doctors. She co-founded the global health department at UCLA, where she teaches an introductory course every year.
“I expect my students to understand health and finance indicators, such as life expectancy and fertility rates,” Panosian said. “We should all understand these statistics as global citizens.”
The public, inundated with blogs, single-source articles and short health clips on the nightly news, is uncertain about what’s happening in medicine. “There’s a traditional role of medical experts to assist and advise professional journalists,” Panosian said.
She encouraged fellow medical professionals to harness their expertise and use their voice to help the public understand health issues. “It isn’t as hard as you think to write an op-ed for your local paper.”
Panosian writes about global health and other medical issues for Los Angeles Times, Scientific American and Discover Magazine. “Starting with a local audience is a great way to expand and to introduce global health,” she told the crowd of doctors and medical students. “People will turn to trustworthy sources and you are those sources for certain topics.”