Thought Leadership

A tribute to a great Epidemiologist and a great friend of Africa

4 Mins read

Editor’s note: Chikwe Ihekweazu was Curator of Nigeria Health Watch until he was appointed as Chief Executive of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, a role that obviously made it impossible for him to continue directing the editorial content of NHW. However, when he sent in this piece, although not directly related to health in Nigeria, we thought it carried an important message and so welcomed his contribution, which we share with you below.

A couple of weeks ago, news trickled in that the world had lost Professor Hans Rosling. In my last conversation with him late in 2015, he was effusive in praising the role of the ASEOWA team – the African Union Support to Ebola in West Africa -that was sent to support the response to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.“Chikwe,” he said, “Most people will not admit this but the role of the ASEOWA mission was the turning point – a bunch of skilled, and committed Africans that were willing to work in the hospitals to restore critical services and not stay in offices in front of computers.”

Hans Rosling worked extensively on Ebola in Africa. Photo Courtesy:

At the time, I was working on a project evaluating the success of the mission and he said in no uncertain terms, “Yes, their organisation may not have been great, but there is no question about it, we must keep it alive! Africans have the skills and context to respond to their own challenges and there is very little that a white haired, old, professor like me has to teach you about epidemiology in Africa”.

His work in Liberia was well respected across the response because he was not sent by any big organisation – he convinced his University in Sweden that he needed to be at the heart of the Ebola response and they supported his mission, and he easily became the most respected voice guiding the response in Liberia. The Head of Surveillance of the Liberia Ministry of Health said in an interview, “He just walked into the office and introduced himself”. In a great article describing his work in Liberia – Science reports that on arrival in Monrovia he started by doing simple things, such as proofreading the ministry’s epidemiological reports, which he says nobody else had time for. He changed an important detail in the updates: Rather than listing “0 cases” for counties that had not reported any numbers—which could be misleading—he left them blank. Next, he tackled the problem behind the missing data. Some health care workers couldn’t afford to call in their reports, because they were paying the phone charges themselves. Rosling set up a small fund to pay for scratch cards that gave them airtime.

Hans Rosling with some of his colleagues

Africa just lost a friend and a huge advocate who always pushed for the continent to take its rightful place in the history of the Ebola response.

Hans was one of the best-known epidemiologists in the world. Explaining one’s profession as an “Epidemiologist” was always a huge challenge until Hans Rosling came along. He literally burst into our consciousness with his TED talk in 2006 – The best stats you’ve ever seen. That single talk has been watched over 16 million times and is one of the most popular TED talks of all time. If you genuinely do not have 18 minutes to watch that talk, watch this one for three minutes; in probably one of the best data animations that I have ever seen to make a point in under three minutes, Hans Rosling demonstrates the incredible progress made in the world in childhood mortality, especially in the “developing world”.

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The company he founded, Gapminder, has contributed to the way the world sees Africa and the way we see ourselves, by interpreting and illustrating data in a way no one else had done. His animated and passionate style challenged the way epidemiology professors teach this beautiful subject – including using design to illustrate data to great effect, bringing statistics to life.

When I met Hans with a group of other enthusiasts in a hotel lobby in Qatar, he sat down with us and spoke freely about his work and passion. With no airs and no ego, he pushed my friend Ike Anya and I, two public health physicians in awe of his work, to use data and our voices to push our countries harder to do the right thing. I left that meeting reflecting on my statistics lectures that held every Friday at 2 pm in the College of Medicine of the University of Nigeria and wondered how different the careers of many of my fellow medical students would have been if we had had Professor Rosling as our teacher.

As I join the world in mourning Hans Rosling, I reflect on how important his work is in my current responsibility in leading the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. Almost none of the data on the burden of infectious diseases in Nigeria is available on the website of the organisation that I lead. How can Nigerians hold us accountable for the work that we do on their behalf if we are not able to share with them the burden of the diseases that we are supposed to be working on?

Hans will remain an inspiration to me, and to every epidemiologist. Our profession means very little if we are not able to communicate the meaning of our work to the people that we serve. There should not be any set of data too difficult to explain. Learning the science of statistics is not enough if one does not put in as much effort into the art of communicating it.

Hans Rosling may have left this world, but he inspired the world. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants.

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