Director, Malaria Department, Jhpiego
When Dr. Gladys Tetteh began her career as a medical doctor in a pediatric ward in her native Ghana, she saw too many cases of children sick or dying from malaria, a preventable, treatable disease. She knew she wanted to move from reacting and treating illness to focus her work on preventing and ultimately eliminating this deadly disease. Gladys has been with PMI Impact Malaria since the project began and supports efforts to ensure technical excellence in project outputs.
In celebration of International Women’s Day and women’s contributions to global health, Gladys shares what brought her to a career in malaria service delivery, her proudest accomplishments, and what “a world without malaria” means to her.
What prompted your earliest awareness of malaria and how did it become the focus of your career?
I was working as a medical officer in one of the largest hospitals in Ghana. I had finished medical school, traveled to the U.S. for my master's degree in public health, and I had gone back to Ghana to practice clinical medicine. While working in the pediatric department, I remember between June and September there were so many children admitted with severe malaria who died. I recall one occasion losing a child who was so pale from anemia [one of the presentations of severe malaria]. We were giving him blood to save his life, but he had been brought in too late. During my time working in the pediatric department, I chatted with a number of mothers whose children were on admission for malaria. I would ask what they knew about malaria, if they knew how to prevent it, and if they knew what to do as soon as they realized their child was unwell. I remember many of them saying with regret that they did not know enough and that if they did, they would never let their child end up in such a bad way – and certainly never to the point of losing them. To me that was striking.
When soon after that I was invited to join a group of researchers conducting clinical research projects in malaria, I jumped at the opportunity to apply my proficiency in epidemiology to prevent disease, disability, and death from malaria. Since then, malaria has been the focus of my career. For 25 years I have worked in preventive health care roles that intervene before health effects occur, screen to identify malaria in its earliest stages, and/or manage malaria immediately post diagnosis to slow or stop this preventable, treatable disease.
When you think about your time with PMI Impact Malaria, what is an accomplishment of which you are most proud or that you feel has driven the impact that we’re all working towards collectively?
I have been with the project since start-up and played an initial key role in overall technical vision, strategy, conceptualization and design of malaria service delivery activities, so a number of things come to mind. The accomplishment I am most proud of is leading the project team to develop the project’s global performance monitoring plan (PMP). I am proud of the critical tool the project has in place for planning, managing, and documenting data collection and data use. Fundamentally, I am proud to have used a human-centered design approach to develop a global PMP which has well thought-through indicators and is easy to understand and use by PMI Impact Malaria country and headquarter teams. I credit this to the design thinking process I led working through the stages of inspiration, ideation, and implementation with technical experts experienced in supporting prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of malaria in children and pregnant women.
Throughout the life of the PMI Impact Malaria project, I have witnessed our country and global teams use the PMP to continuously collect and use data to inform project planning, target resources, prioritize supervision, reflect and course-correct activity implementation. I have seen the PMP underpin the project’s learning agenda, communications, and advocacy strategies. When I looked at the project’s most recent Annual Report, I recall thinking what a solid foundation the global PMP provided to enable the methodical reporting of the project’s accomplishments. I smiled then and continue to smile with pride.
Women are disproportionately impacted by malaria, but they are also a driving force in efforts to end malaria. As we celebrate women in science this month and look towards International Women’s Day in March, what does it mean to you to be a leader for other women in this field?
I have children and, even as educated on the disease as I have been working in malaria, during my reproductive years and when my children were young, I was very scared of malaria. Even with my knowledge and use of recommended preventive tools in my home in Ghana, my children got malaria. It never progressed to severe malaria because I was expedient. Then as an adult I got severe malaria, and I know how terrifying that experience was even though I knew what measures to pursue. As I continue to work in malaria, I feel fortunate that, having been in their shoes, I am able to peek into caregivers' minds and understand the motivations, anxieties, barriers, and facilitators related to protecting their children from malaria.
In my role as a leader in the field of malaria, I want to continue to advocate for families and their children to be prioritized for access to quality malaria prevention and treatment services. It is powerful for any woman working [and leading] in a certain space that they can relate [to those they advocate on behalf]. I also want to recognize the contribution of my colleague women leaders working tirelessly in diverse roles to end malaria. Whether in the capacity of a donor, policymaker, program implementer or service provider, I applaud and celebrate their achievements and their collaboration as we hold hands as women helping women and families transform their futures.
Looking ahead in our lifetime when we get to the point where we've reached an end to malaria, what does a world without malaria mean to you and what does it look like to you?
What a joy it will be to attain a world without malaria! Being from a malaria-endemic country, when I think about malaria I think about its impact in terms of socio-economic and emotional costs, and how it holds back developing countries. Currently, in malaria-endemic countries, aside from the intense emotional consequences to families from malaria sickness and death, sickness from malaria also causes absenteeism from school, sub-optimal school performance and poor cognitive development in children. In adults, sickness also causes lost workdays and lower productivity and deaths in adults leads to loss of trained manpower in the workforce.
A world without malaria means that individuals and families can flourish. Countries like my birth country Ghana can become more developed without the obstacles this disease creates. There will be decreased out of pocket expenses for patients and their families. Organizations and health systems will save on malaria prevention, treatment, and control costs. Health systems will have increased capacity to provide basic services, or to address other endemic diseases and act quickly against outbreaks from new health threats. Production loss will be decreased with no costs associated with lower productivity or with lost workdays. Importantly, psychic costs due to anxiety and pain will be gone. Children will be able to grow up without fearing a mosquito bite.
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