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Peter Piot: From tropical medicine to global health

Peter Piot. Photo credit: Jittima Jantanamalaka/HDN on Flickr

For today’s Humanosphere podcast, we’re talking with Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who is also well known for his role in co-discovering the Ebola virus in then-Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1976. We start by unpacking the etymology of the term “global health” and how the organization for which Piot now serves was started, arguably, to protect the health of Britain’s colonial enterprises from the costly impact of malaria, filariasis and other tropical scourges. The term shifted from “tropical medicine,” to “international health” and now “global health” to emphasize that developments in health care and health systems are needed not just in poor countries, but globally, including rich countries like the U.S.

Piot also led research on HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and women’s health, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. From doing research, Piot shifted to a more policy-focused role when the AIDS crisis started to peak. He became president of the International AIDS Society and then became the first director of UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS. As he said, while research is fulfilling and important work, he wanted to be responsible for implementing the results of the research, like delivering life-saving drugs to areas hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic.

Peter Piot

As we’ve covered before in Humanosphere, some say global health has experienced a golden age in the past 15 years in terms of funding and attention, especially with notable research developments in fighting epidemics worldwide. But, Piot notes, now there’s a need for the media and policymakers to move forward from simply responding to individual targeted infectious diseases like AIDS, SARS, Ebola and now Zika. It’s not just about the disease du jour, but also the need to start tackling the more complex (and albeit less sexy) task of actually building adequate health infrastructures so we wouldn’t need to scramble so much when an epidemic hits.

But before that interview, Humanosphere’s East Coast correspondent Tom Murphy and I hold down down the fort, since our fearless leader Tom Paulson is away, by discussing the stories making the rounds this week. Murphy wrote a story on new global data showing how making abortion illegal doesn’t actually lower abortion rates, especially in developing countries or even areas of developed countries where access to contraceptives is scant.

We also talked about a story on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s divestment from oil giant BP and what this might mean moving forward. The movement was widely celebrated by activists, one of them former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who talked to us in a podcast a while back on pressing the Gates Foundation to divest. Lastly, reporter Lisa Nikolau chronicled the developments in Brazil following Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, with the new interim president appointing a cabinet of all white, mostly old, men. Understandably, people are mad because not only is it an undemocratic process, it’s also not a representative cabinet (and old men are pretty #tbt, if you ask me).

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About Author

Imana Gunawan

Imana Gunawan is Humanosphere's social media manager and podcast producer. A University of Washington graduate in journalism and dance, Imana's interests include underrepresented communities, the intersection between politics and culture, global-local issues and the arts. She can be reached at @imanafg on Twitter or