Bio: Dr Anthony Solomon PhD FRCP, is an infectious diseases physician and epidemiologist. He is Chief Scientist in the Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases at WHO. His main research interest has been to generate evidence for best practice in the control and elimination of the blinding eye condition trachoma.
Could you briefly describe the jobs you have had since medical school in global health and policy/consultancy?
I studied medicine at the University of Queensland in Australia. As in the British system, prior to my final year as a student, we undertook elective attachments. I went to Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi. This was a very profound experience for me. It made me realise how much could be done and how much needed to be done in the poorest communities in the world and I wanted to go back having learnt and practiced some more medicine. I did a few years in junior doctor jobs in Queensland and then went to LSHTM for the DTM&H, which was fantastic. I then serendipitously was offered a job working for the School in Ghana, which was a fairly short-term research position working with the Ghana Health Service, training community health volunteers to diagnose trachoma and treat it with azithromycin. Thanks mostly to my local collaborators, this was a very successful study and led to the opportunity to go to Rombo District, Tanzania and to do a PhD. Then I worked for a few more years at LSHTM in London, but travelling all the time to Africa and Asia.
After a few years of that, I went back to finish my specialist training in Infectious Diseases in the UK, and just after finishing that, with collaborators at Sightsavers and the International Trachoma Initiative, got a grant from DfID to complete baseline mapping of trachoma worldwide, as well as a Wellcome Trust fellowship. In 2014, I moved to WHO to take on responsibility for the global trachoma programme. I’ve had a research interest in NTDs and trachoma since 1999, when I started academic medicine. I feel very fortunate to have trodden this path, doing something so interesting and rewarding as well as being able to make a contribution to society and improving population health.
What attracted you to global health and policy as a career, alongside clinical medicine?
The chance to work in clinical medicine, academia and public health is a real privilege and to be competent at them all simultaneously is a stretch. I have not worked as a clinician since 2014 when I came to WHO, as it can be hard to stay current in everything at the level required.
Working in a small field like trachoma or NTDs provides a unique opportunity to be involved across the spectrum of clinical academia – overseeing the trachoma elimination programme for WHO, I am able to be involved in everything from epidemiology to basic science to trials to policy. It is a pleasure to see and be involved in the whole breadth of activity taken against this specific disease. Though out of clinical medicine I am still confronted with the realities of patients who suffer from the neglected diseases I work on as I still go out into the field and interact with patients – this means you don’t forget the reason you do the work that you do.
What makes you most proud of doing the job you currently do?
I feel very lucky to work with a lot of people who are doing the jobs they do for the right reasons and really care about the health of people. Between 2002-2019, when the last round of global figures was published, the population at risk of blindness from trachoma fell from 1.5 billion to 142 million. This has occurred as result of concerted actions from a large number of stakeholders. I am proud of the strong relationships that I have made and the contribution made collectively to global health, though I cannot claim singular responsibility for any of it: anything I have been involved in has been a collaboration.
What advice do you have for medical students interested in being involved with global health and health policy in future?
First: any advice that you get should be taken with a pinch of salt, as there is a huge survivorship bias inherent in asking only people who have gone a certain distance in any field to provide advice. Second: as a particular example, I may not be the best person to give advice. I was very fortunate that the opportunities that presented themselves to me at various stages of my path so far turned out to be, in retrospect, exactly what I wanted to do. But maybe I can turn that into something that could be useful advice for someone. There is a huge breadth of opportunities in medicine, any of which you will probably find to be equally fulfilling. Follow your nose and take the opportunities that come your way that look good, and if they don’t – look for new and different opportunities! Most people find a way that seems to be right for them.