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Leading Liberian Health

by Mary K. Zajac

The civil war burning through much of Liberia reached Tolbert Nyenswah and his family in the mid-1990s. It uprooted them from their home in the southern province of Sinoe and forced them to relocate to a refugee camp in Tabou, Ivory Coast.

“We walked for three months [to reach the camp], hiding in bushes and eating roots to survive,” he says. In the camp, he saw children die from diarrhea and disease.

The experience still echoes within, motivating him to become what he calls “a champion of global health with emphasis on community-based health services.”

Just before he graduated in May, Nyenswah, LLB, MPH ’12, received a letter from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appointing him assistant minister of Health and Social Welfare/deputy chief medical officer of Preventive Services.

It’s been a long journey to his dream. After Nyenswah and his family returned to Liberia from Ivory Coast, he earned degrees in biology and chemistry and a law degree. He became deputy program manager of Liberia’s National Malaria Control Program. There, he crafted policies for the treatment, prevention and control of the disease that affects 3.5 million Liberians and is the leading cause of death for pregnant women and children under 5. Although the program distributed more than 5 million mosquito nets and treated 2.5 million malaria episodes in 2010–2011, Nyenswah came to the Bloomberg School after deciding that he needed formal study in public health in order to be an even stronger health advocate.

Even so, he brought a wealth of direct experience about malaria treatment and prevention to the classroom. Tolbert was “more of a colleague [than a student] in the field of malaria,” says his capstone advisor William Brieger, DrPH ’92, MPH, an International Health professor and a senior malaria specialist with Jhpiego.

In his new position, Nyenswah says he is supervising an expanded immunization program and collaborating on maternal and child health issues. “Something I’m taking home is [the idea of] making change through policy,” says Nyenswah, whose new position, he says, puts him “at the epicenter for the implementation of the essential package of health services that is the cornerstone of Liberia’s 10-year National Health Plan and Policy [2011–2021].”

Since Nyenswah’s return to Liberia in June, he has been deeply involved with creating community-based health care services, particularly in communities where public health infrastructure has been decimated by violence. His MPH studies, he says, have given him a newfound “confidence that you can deliver the necessary services anywhere.”

It’s this kind of optimism that inspires Henry B. Perry, MD, PhD, MPH ’71, senior associate in International Health and Nyenswah’s mentor. “What I learned from [Tolbert] was that it really is possible for an individual to make a difference in government programs,” says Perry of Nyenswah’s work with Liberia’s malaria program. “Tolbert is an exceptional person with a strong personal commitment. Even though he is not a physician, he obtained specialized training and will put it to good use as a strong leader with a focus on engaging communities.”

Although Nyenswah looks forward to working further with American colleagues and institutions to promote global health in both Liberia and in Africa, he is pleased to be home in Monrovia, he says, “serving my country and my people.”