Meet João Pires, who initially studied to become a medical doctor (MD), but today works for WHO in the Alert and Response Operations. João works to improve health security across the WHO European Region by maintaining and strengthening regional alert and response operations and assisting countries in responding to public health emergencies.
From hands on being a medical doctor to public health
João’s path from completing medical school in Lisbon to working in UN City in World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Office has been far from straight. After medical school and during the following 6 years of hospital-based work in internal medicine and infectious diseases, João was drawn several times towards the NGO-world as he wanted to make a difference on the ground. He travelled on missions with the Portuguese NGO Assistência Médica Internacional (AMI) to Angola, Zimbabwe and Cape Verde.
After working in humanitarian emergency missions on cholera and dengue fever outbreaks, João wanted to continue his work in Africa. He went on to undertake a tropical medicine course taught in Uganda and Tanzania from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Subsequently, he worked as an epidemiologist in a 9-month research project in Angola.
“The research in Angola pulled me towards the field of public health, which refers to activities to prevent disease and promote health among the population as a whole. Hence, I took a Master of Public Health at the University of Liverpool with a focus on epidemiology. I continued working as a MD, but wanted to get into working with public health too. So, after my studies in 2014 I applied for an internship with WHO. I got a three-month internship over the summer in Copenhagen in the same unit I am with today.”
UN City – a socially inclusive environment
After the internship, João went back to Portugal to work as a MD. Public health and working with the WHO, however, had gotten under his skin and he began to apply for positions in WHO. In September 2015, he got a position at WHO’s Regional Office for Europe and moved back to Copenhagen:
“Life in Copenhagen is so different from where I come from. I had good summer memories from my internship, so I knew what to expect in coming back to the Danish capital. In Portugal the lifestyle is more laid-back and you can make friends instantly. Here it takes more time. I like the supportiveness of Copenhagen and find sports as a good way to integrate and bond with Danes. I am now part of a triathlon team, currently preparing for a Half Ironman.”
João finds that social life in UN City is something special:
“I find the international environment of UN City somehow conducive to making new friends. Everyone is outside their own safe environment and interested in getting a new network, which provides for a very socially inclusive atmosphere.”
Driven by the wider impact
The work of João’s Unit – Alert and Response Operations (ARO)– covers a wide range of activities, being responsible for the ‘invisible work’ of ensuring regional health security.
“Our goal is to safeguard the global health security of our Region. We do surveillance for acute public health events to detect signals of health threats at an early stage. We support member states in taking action to prevent public health events from becoming big emergencies. We work both with large public health emergencies like Ebola or Zika and smaller ones like localized salmonella or hepatitis A outbreaks.”
The WHO European Region comprises 53 countries, with a population of nearly 900 million, stretching from the Arctic Ocean in the north and the Mediterranean Sea in the south and from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Pacific Ocean in the east.
“Our office works as the regional contact point for Member States in case of public health emergencies. We have a 24/7 duty officer phone that is always carried by one of our team members and is available for Member States to use in crisis situations. Every morning we have a meeting in what we call the Emergency Operations Centre to discuss and evaluate current public health events occurring in our Region.”
Reflecting on his professional future, João finds himself preferring public health to the practice as a MD:
“The work as a MD is very different from the work in public health. While I was working as a MD in a hospital or in the field I always felt I had a very important impact on the lives of maybe 10-15 patients per day, whereas, working in public health, I feel that my work can have a wider impact in the population as a whole. I can be part of organized efforts to prevent large-scale disease outbreaks and support countries in need. Both kinds of work are extremely rewarding, but I see myself more and more working within public health.”
While only time can tell what will be the next stop on João’s career path, he seems likely to keep insisting on making a difference be it hands on in the field or doing the invisible work of ensuring global health security.