In honor of World Water Day, I am highlighting Helen Keller International’s Program Manager for Neglected Tropical Disease Control, Emily Toubali. One of her responsibilities it to manage our Trachoma Control Programs, a major component of which is promoting face-washing and proper sanitation to prevent this blinding disease. I recently sat down with Emily and asked her about her background, what drew her to the career she has today, and why water is so important to global health.
Emily’s path to public health: “I’ve always been interested in health, and at one time I was very serious about wanting to go to medical school, but now, looking back, I can clearly see that all of the steps I took toward medical school were really leading me into a career in public health. I spent time in Peru and Chile in college working on a floating hospital in the Amazon (Peru) and doing volunteer work (Chile). After graduation, I traveled to Nigeria and worked in a hospital, mostly with patients with HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. These international experiences solidified my desire to pursue a career in international health.
Before graduate school, I also spent several years in a research center at the University of Alabama focusing on emergency care and emerging infections, which further reinforced my interest in epidemiology, study design, and biostatistics. I also taught English as a second language to adult immigrants in South Boston as an AmeriCorps volunteer, which gave me a thirst to learn about cultures worldwide. I took the leap and applied to schools of public health and began Columbia’s MPH program in Epidemiology through the Global Health Track in 2007. In 2008, as part of my graduate studies, I interned with Helen Keller International’s Sierra Leone office and also worked in the New York Headquarters office as a consultant. After graduation, I spent some time in Mali working on Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) and was hired full time in January, 2010. I wanted to pinch myself when I was hired; I had landed my dream job!”
What has surprised Emily most about her job: “I don’t view it as a job. It’s become an integral part of my identity. I became awestruck with HKI and the NTD program while in Sierra Leone; the work we do and the goals we are trying to accomplish have become a part of who I am. I also appreciate the fact that every moment with this job truly presents an opportunity to learn and grow. Our globe-spanning NTD team at HKI is an incredible, inspiring group.”
Success in Sierra Leone: “I have had many rewarding moments since joining HKI, but my experience working on the Neglected Tropical Disease program in Sierra Leone stands out. I watched the program blossom and become so successful, especially in the post-war environment. Our experience overcoming challenges serves as a good example for other countries [a recent article in International Health by HKI staff further describes this success]. It has been very gratifying to see the results and to know that the results translate into improved health for millions of people.”
HKI’s work with Neglected Tropical Diseases: NTDs are a group of debilitating conditions linked to poverty that can cause blindness, chronic pain, severe disability, disfigurement and malnutrition. An estimated 1.4 billion people – one sixth of the world’s population – are infected; another 2 billion people are at risk. There are inexpensive, safe and effective treatments available for NTDs. Helen Keller International works in Africa and Asia to help control these diseases.
How does access to water prevent a disease like trachoma? “Trachoma is caused by a bacterial infection in the eye and is the world’s leading cause of infectious blindness. It spreads easily from person to person and is most commonly passed from child to child and from child to mother. However, the simple act of face-washing with water can prevent the disease, and good personal and environmental hygiene is also extremely important.
Right now, over 300 million people live in trachoma-endemic areas, primarily in the poorest communities in the developing world—meaning that millions of people without access to water are at risk of becoming blind from trachoma.”
What’s exciting now: “There are so many exciting things happening in our programs it is hard to choose! I just finished work on a radio impact study in Mali and we are currently implementing a similar study in Niger. Helen Keller International has been working for several years with community radio stations to broadcast public health messages about trachoma and HKI has designed a survey tool to better understand the messages being heard and “taken home” and how to improve behavior change communication strategies. We are also entering the groundbreaking, post-endemic surveillance phase with trachoma and lymphatic filariasis in several of our current NTD countries, and the monitoring and evaluation pertaining to this phase is very interesting.”
The inspiration of Helen Keller: “I am from Alabama, where Helen Keller grew up, and I went to her birthplace as a child and read her autobiography when I was in grade school, so she has always been inspiring to me. I even reread her autobiography while I was in Sierra Leone and it was very motivational. She didn’t give up, she was self-assured and self-aware, and she was always positive. She was able to accomplish incredible achievements in very adverse situations.”
Watch the short video below to learn more about HKI’s Trachoma Control program: