WHO official joins CISAC as consulting professor

David L. Heymann, assistant director-general for communicable diseases and the director general's representative for polio eradication at the World Health Organization (WHO), has joined CISAC as a consulting professor.

Heymann has dedicated much of his career as a medical doctor to investigating and fighting the spread of infectious diseases and mobilizing global efforts to prevent pandemics.

"Dr. Heymann's expertise on threats to health security is a welcome addition to CISAC," Siegfried Hecker, CISAC co-director, said. "He is deeply knowledgeable about the most severe disease-related threats as well as how best to build cooperative international efforts to reduce these threats."

Prior to assuming his current position at WHO, Heymann served as executive director of WHO's Communicable Diseases Cluster, which includes programs on infectious and tropical diseases. In that position, he oversaw the response to Severe Accute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003.

Before joining WHO, Heymann worked for 13 years as a medical epidemiologist in sub-Saharan Africa, on assignment with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. While there, he participated in investigating both the first outbreak of Ebola, in Yambuku (then Zaire) in 1976, and the second outbreak, in Tandala, in 1977. He directed the international response to the Ebola outbreak in Kikwit in 1995. Heymann also spent two years as a medical officer in the WHO smallpox eradication program in India prior to 1976.

Heymann spent two weeks in residence at Stanford last spring, co-hosted by CISAC and FSI, during which he delivered a a talk in FSI's Payne Lecture series. In the lecture, titled "Infectious Diseases across Borders: Public Health Security in the 21st Century," he discussed the collective responsibility to defend public health. He surveyed WHO's efforts to fight emerging and re-emerging infectious disease on every continent.

Among those efforts is a global network of scientists who monitor and collect viruses, sending samples to four WHO collaborating centers for analysis and tracking. This network detected the novel virus H5N1, known as avian flu, in 1997, a disease WHO continues to track closely.

Currently, Heymann said, the H5N1 virus is in the third of six phases in WHO's pandemic alert system, meaning that there have been cases of human infection but "no, or very infrequent, human-to-human spread."

Heymann emphasized, "It is important to prevent the disease at the source." At the same time, WHO is working to "provide universal access to vaccines," which, while not eliminating the disease, "will prevent sickness," he said.