The saying “Health is wealth” is a universal accepted quote since for anyone to function in the hustles and bustles of everyday life, health remains key. To this end, apart from government which plays an integral part to secure the health of its citizens, NGOs have played a crucial role in securing the same.
One such acclaimed NGO tackling health at a global playing field is Vital Strategies. Here in Ethiopia, Dawit Bisrat leads the global NGO as the Country Director. He leads the Resolve to Save Lives’ Cardiovascular Health Initiative, Prevent Epidemics, and Data for Health Initiative teams. He also leads the Vital Strategies effort to support the government of Ethiopia’s response to COVID-19. Dawit is a public health and healthcare leadership expert with international experience for more than ten years.
Dawit holds a general MPH from Haramaya University in Ethiopia and an MBA in International Business Analytics from Greenwich University in London. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. Capital got hold of Dawit for an inside look of the NGO’s programs as well as its activities. Excepts;
Capital: Describe to us what Vital Strategies does?
Dawit Bisrat: Vital Strategies is a leading global health organization, headquartered in New York, that works with governments, non-government organizations and civil society around the world and takes on the most pressing health problems to save millions of lives from preventable death and diseases. Our work focuses on addressing some of the most critical and neglected health issues our world currently faces, including cardiovascular disease, epidemic prevention, road safety, food policy, tobacco control, and more. We envision a world where everyone is protected by a strong public health system.
Our approach revolves around promoting and shaping global health priorities through strengthening the collection and use of data to inform government action; engaging in strategic communication, campaigns, and advocacy to influence policies and behavior; and supporting governments in key aspects of public health practices and managing large scale health initiatives to helping millions of people live longer and healthier life.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have also been supporting over 60 countries technically and financially in their response. Some of our work in this regard includes providing on-the-ground trainings, producing data-driven tools and guidance, provision of rapid flexible response funds, and leveraging technology to enhance the COVID-19 response.
Vital strategies’ programs reach into more than 70 countries worldwide and have touched the lives of 2 Billion people.
Capital: The Addis Ababa office being relatively new, what went in to the process of choosing Ethiopia as part of Vital Strategies’ global network?
Dawit Bisrat: Ethiopia has shown tremendous improvement on the health system and the health system is utilizing the development support efficiently to benefit the community at the ground level. It is a promising development for any partners to implement programs in Ethiopia.
While we have worked in Ethiopia for years, our new office gives us greater opportunity to support critical health initiatives, supporting our partners in improving health outcomes and overcoming emerging health challenges. We’re better poised to build on and learn from the vibrant community who are taking on the next generation of health challenges that Ethiopians know all too well, including COVID-19 and other infectious threats, to road injury and non-communicable disease.
Our ongoing work includes hypertension control, a road safety program to prevent injury and death on the roads, collecting and using data to inform public health policy decisions, and improving civil registration and vital statistics, and efforts to support the government of Ethiopia’s response to COVID-19. The office has provided a base for our expanded Prevent Epidemics team to work with Ethiopia and support COVID-19 communication and health care worker training. By establishing our office here, we hope to make an even greater impact.
Capital: The Ethiopian Office is set to focus on responding to COVID-19 response, improving cardiovascular health, preventing road injury and supporting civil registration and vital statics amongst other initiatives. Elaborate for us your initiatives and strategic plans to this regard?
Dawit Bisrat: The programs and initiatives in Ethiopia now include Cardiovascular Health Initiatives, Prevent Epidemics, Road Safety, Partnership for Healthy Cities, and Civil Registration an3d Vital Statistics.
In terms of the COVID-19 response in Ethiopia, through an investment of over 1.5 million USD, we have supported activities such as surveillance, non-pharmaceutical intervention survey, training of health professionals, provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to selected health facilities, Rapid Mortality Surveillance to measure if there any excess death from COVID, and we are currently supporting COVID-19 related risk communication work and vulnerable group mapping exercise in Addis Ababa city. Given that the COVID-19 vaccine has been brought into Ethiopia by the Ministry of Health through the COVAX initiative, we are also supporting the Ministry in vaccine related communication work.
With regards to cardiovascular health, there are 11.5 million people who have high blood pressure in Ethiopia and 16% of all deaths are due to cardiovascular disease. Hence, our works focuses on improving hypertension detection and control at primary healthcare, bring behavioral change related to harmful effects of a high salt diet and benefits of reducing salt intake and support the creation of government programs and policies that promote healthy diets through trans-fat elimination, food front of packages labeling and marketing restrictions for unhealthy food. All the above-mentioned interventions would prevent people from dying prematurely of cardiovascular disease and improve quality of life.
The road safety program, one of Vital Strategies’ earliest engagements in Ethiopia, aims to provide support in strategic communications and in social marketing/media campaigns to promote safer driving and compliance with traffic regulations in Ethiopia and to support government to implement best practices and establish funding mechanism for long-term success.
The Civic Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) initiative has been supporting the Ministry of Health, Immigration, National, Vital Events Agency (INVEA) and Central Statistics Agency (CSA) to improve national registration, statistical production, and vital statistics respectively. Unlike many other developed countries, Ethiopia does not have a fully developed CRVS system; among other indicators, more than 84% of births and 96% of deaths are not registered in Ethiopia. Hence, our CRVS team is working to revitalize the CRVS system in collaboration with partners, develop strategic documents and targets to achieve the SDG goals. With regards to COVID-19, the CRVS project is also currently working on identifying excess mortality along with causes of death to better understand the magnitude of potential COVID-19 mortality. This program helps the government to make informed decisions for policy designing, resource allocation and also has positive legal and statistical implications.
Therefore, through an approach centered on evidence and data, we hope to contribute to millions of Ethiopians living healthier and longer lives.
Capital: You recently unveiled a campaign to encourage Ethiopians to cut salt consumption in half. Can you further elaborate on this intriguing campaign?
Dawit Bisrat: Non-communicable disease has taken the lives of too many Ethiopians. Excess salt is a primary contributor to cardiovascular deaths in Ethiopia every year. The average salt intake in Ethiopia is 8.3 grams per day, far above the World Health Organization’s recommended limit of less than 5 grams per day. High-salt diets are directly linked to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attack, kidney failure, and stroke. One out of every six adults in Ethiopia has high blood pressure, and 32.4% of cardiovascular deaths can be attributed to high salt intake. The recently finalized Salt reduction media campaign main goal was to create awareness among the community to reduce their daily salt intake by half. Research showed that the main source of salt consumption in Ethiopia are homemade foods. We believe that the camping will bring behavioral and attitudinal change among the community in reduction of salt consumption.
Capital: Who are your partners and supporters that have been of great contribution to the success of your projects over the years since your inception?
Dawit Bisrat: At Vital Strategies collaboration is an important aspect of our work. Globally, we partner with governments, leading researchers, schools, lawyers, food makers, journalists, technological innovators, and other change makers.
Our collaborations span foundations, non-governmental organizations, and governments across sectors. Some of our major funders globally are Bloomberg Philanthropies, USAID, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and more.
We work with governments in over 70 countries which means we work closely with ministries of health, road authorities, food and drug regulators, among many other government structures. These partnerships have been critical in designing effective, evidence-based, and sustainable interventions which contribute to strengthening public health systems. We also work closely with global bodies such as the World Health Organization and the World Bank which have been key partners in our work across different countries.
Across the different Vital Strategies initiatives and programs, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US-CDC), the CDC Foundation, African Field Epidemiology Network (AFENET), The Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI) and many more are key partners in our efforts to champion sustainable public health policies and practices.
It is through such collaborations and partnerships that Vital Strategies can touch the lives of billions across the globe and bring about impressive change in its areas of engagement. For instance, Vital Strategies has helped reduce fatalities from road crashes by as much as 50% in several cities. We will continue to strengthen these collaborations to amplify the work that is being done so more people can benefit from it.
Capital: What have been some of the challenges that Vital Strategies faces around its global networks and Ethiopia? What are your avenues of overcoming such challenges?
Dawit Bisrat: Vital Strategies as a global public health organization works with different governments in strengthening their health system. Globally we implement programs in more than 70 countries including Ethiopia. So far Vital Strategies did not face strong challenges. We believe that is because of the principles that we apply, and our partnership is with governments and civil societies. Furthermore, our support is based on the government needs and we are very much adaptable to fit in their system without compromising the principles of our organization such as scalability, speed, and time sensitive interventions. For example, one of our support areas is on cardiovascular health with a focus on hypertension prevention and control. Generally, non-communicable diseases in Ethiopia did not get due emphasis and it is an area of limited support from other partners. Vital strategies with the initiative of Resolve to Save Lives is currently implementing programs where we supply medication, BP devices and technical support for 70 health facilities. Generally speaking, by supporting the government with real gaps/intervention areas, we are able to minimize challenges we are faced with.