Peter Salama (MBBS 1993): 1968 - 2020

Melbourne Medical School alum, Dr Peter Salama died suddenly at the age of 51 on 23 January.

Dr Peter Salama

The Australian-born medical epidemiologist was known as an eloquent global health advocate, who dedicated his career to combating the world’s most difficult and dangerous diseases and strengthening fragile health systems in states weakened by war and civil unrest.

After joining the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2016 as executive director of Health Emergencies, Salama oversaw the winding down of a massive Ebola epidemic in West Africa, only to be confronted two years later in 2018 with the re-emergence of the deadly virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

“Pete embodied everything that is best about WHO and the United Nations –professionalism, commitment and compassion,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in a statement. “Our hearts are broken.”

Prior to joining UNICEF in 2002, Dr Salama was visiting scientist at the International Emergency and Refugee Health Branch at the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and a visiting professor in nutrition at Tufts University. He has also worked with Médecins Sans Frontières and Concern Worldwide in several countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Dr Salama has led research and published extensively on maternal and newborn child health, vaccine-preventable diseases, HIV, nutrition, war-related mortality and violence, refugee and emergency health, and programming in fragile states. He completed his medical and public health degrees at Melbourne and Harvard Universities, where he was also a Fulbright and Harkness fellow in public policy.

In 2019, he was appointed Executive Director of WHO’s new flagship programme on Universal Health Coverage (UHC), which he used as a platform to advocate for the inclusion of the world’s poorest and left-behind populations.

A talented orator, Salama was outspoken about both the challenges and the need to boost weak health systems, particularly in conflict regions, improving both their preparedness as well as routine care, issues with which he had grappled since the early days of his career.

He linked persistent health inequalities with the problems faced by fragile states. In one keynote address to a Geneva gathering of pharma manufacturers in December 2018, he said the following:

“In recent decades it is not necessarily the poorest countries that have fallen behind the most, it is those countries or parts of countries that are facing conflict, insurgency or are fragile due to other reasons.

“In fact, more than three-quarters of the major outbreaks we see at WHO occur in these 20 or 30 places. Think, plague in Madagascar, wild polio on the Afghan- Pakistan border, yellow fever in Angola, cholera in Yemen, diphtheria among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, measles in Venezuela … Most of our global health battles will be won or lost in these countries.”

The huge outpouring of response over Salama’s death from nearly every major global health institution, as well as national health ministries, was testimony to the high regard he commanded for his work on some of the world’s most challenging diseases and health issues.

“Peter was a loyal and committed health advocate and multilateralist. He brought depth and strength to WHO. He will be missed,” tweeted Lancet Editor, Richard Horton.

He was “an amazing person and a relentless champion for the universal right to health for every child,” said UNICEF’s global director of communications, Paloma Escudero.

Before joining WHO, Dr Salama was Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at UNICEF, an organization that he joined in 2002, with his first posting in war-torn Afghanistan.

He is still remembered there. Suraya Dalil, Afghanistan’s minister of public health, said: “Dr Peter Salama worked with UNICEF Afghanistan in 2002-3 and immensely contributed in the construct of equitable healthcare including the Basic Package of Health Services. His legacy to make the world a better place will continue in our continued collective work”.

Salama also served as UNICEF’s Representative in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe (2009–2015), Chief of Global Health and Principal Advisor on HIV/AIDS in New York (2004–2009).

Salama, is survived by his wife and three children.

Originally published: go.unimelb.edu.au/ip9j