‘Response to outbreaks is weakened where female talent, expertise and diverse perspectives are excluded’ – Roopa Dhatt
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, women have been doing back-breaking work to strengthen Nigeria’s public health systems: from being homemakers to often being the first-level caregivers to making up a greater ratio of healthcare providers. Unvoiced, unheard, over-mentored and underfunded, the response efforts of women, who make up 70% of the global health workforce, are often undermined by gender inequalities.
In 2014, one Nigerian heroine, Dr. Ameyo Stella Adadevoh, saved our nation from a deadly disease. Understanding the importance of health security to national security, she prevented Nigeria’s first case of the Ebola outbreak from leaving her hospital after identifying the symptoms of the virus.
The first case of COVID-19 in Nigeria was also identified by a Nigerian female doctor, Dr. Amarachukwu Allison, proving women play a non-negotiable role in health security. However, women are often in the shadows, working effortlessly and thanklessly to minimize the dangers and impact of acute public health events that threaten people’s health across geographical locations and international boundaries.
International Women’s Day is a day set aside all over the world to honor the contributions of women to society and to highlight and address challenges that limit women’s potential to do more. This year, the conversations are lined up on the need to #EmbraceEquity, and to take action on gender inequalities that hinder the social, economic, cultural, and political advancement of women. These demands are no different for women who do great work in global health security.
To commemorate this year’s International Women’s Day, we have spotlighted five amazing Nigerian women who have pushed through, broken the norm and are doing amazing work to contribute to strengthening health systems globally.
They also share their thoughts to advocate for the involvement of more women in strengthening global health security across the world.
1. Women Can Participate and Lead Public Health Decision Making Structures–Prof Adebola Olayinka
Professor Adebola Olayinka is a Professor of Medical Microbiology and Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) expert with more than 20 years of technical and leadership experience in infection control and infectious disease preparedness and response.
One thing to love about Prof Adebola is her experience in working with institutions, international development organizations and the governments of Nigeria and other countries in the African region to design, set up and implement IPC programs, policies and guidelines for health facilities, as well as training curricula for health workers. She has also supported national coordination and implementation of both preparedness and response efforts to emerging and reemerging pathogens such as COVID-19, Lassa fever, Marburg, yellow fever, Ebola, mpox, cholera, cerebrospinal meningitis, and more.
She has made active contributions to organizations like the World Health Organization, Africa Field Epidemiology Network, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and the Center for Infection Control and Patient Safety. She is also the Vice Chair of the Nigeria Society of Infection Control and both a board member and education committee lead of the Infection Control African Network.
In her words, women can participate and lead public health decision making structures.
2. Value and Support the Contributions of Women in All Areas of Society–Dr. Ebere Okereke
If you ever think about challenging the narrative that women cannot wear many hats, Dr. Ebere Okereke is one example that should come to mind. Currently the newly appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Africa Public Health Foundation. Dr. Ebere is a public health physician specializing in health security, health system strengthening and leadership development. She is also a global health strategist, a medical consultant in public health, researcher, author, mentor and capacity builder to many. She has over 30 years of experience in medical and public health practice, with specialist knowledge of epidemiology, health protection, communicable disease control, infection control and emerging infections and zoonoses.
Along with supporting and building partnerships between public health institutions, health ministries and governments across Africa and Asia, Dr. Ebere has worked in several countries including England, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Trinidad & Tobago. She has provided high-level advisory to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change as Senior Adviser on Health, served as Honorary Senior Public Health Adviser to the former Director of Africa CDC, Dr John Nkengasong, where she led special programs, developed Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing, steered the development of Africa CDC’s 5 year strategy and co-created the Kofi Annan Global Health Leadership Program. She also led the development and implementation of the Public Health England International Health Regulations (IHR) strengthening program, aimed at strengthening the capacity of low- and middle-income countries to comply with IHR requirements.
On the involvement of more women in the global health workforce, Dr. Ebere wants the support and contributions of women to be valued.
3. Embrace Equity From Grassroots Action to Wide-Scale Momentum–Dr. Oyeladun Okunromade
Dr. Oyeladun Okunromade is a Senior Public Health and Global Health Consultant, with over 18 years extensive experience in managing public health programs and the development of public health strategies and strengthening health systems. She currently leads the Surveillance and Epidemiology Department at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), and serves as the International Health Regulations national focal point for Nigeria.
She has multifaceted practical experience in International Health Regulations, one health, surveillance and epidemiology of infectious diseases, implementation of projects/grants, monitoring and evaluation of projects, regional and international health care development and country profile development, amongst others core areas of public health expertise.
Apart from being a mentor to several young people at NCDC, Dr. Oyeladun is a Fellow of the International Program in Public Health Leadership from University of Washington, a fellow of the Rx One Health Institute of University of California and a graduate of the Nigeria Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Program. She is also a Current Ambassador for the International Program in Public Health Leadership as well as a member of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention Expert Working Group on Priority Setting and Resource Optimization for Public Health Emergency in Africa.
Dr. Oyeladun desires that every action geared towards creating an equal and enabled world for women be channeled from grassroots to a wide-scale movement, so that all women across all levels are included.
4. Health Security Is Possible When Women Are Empowered to Make Decisions at Home and at Work–Dr. Tochi Okwor
We cannot talk about incorporating Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) and Infection Prevention and Control (IPC)–which are vital indicators for any nation’s health security–into our health facilities in Nigeria, without mentioning one name. Dr. Tochi Okwor chairs Nigeria’s AMR Coordination Committee and heads the IPC Unit of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. In these roles, she leads Nigeria’s efforts to build a sustainable capacity to prevent, detect and respond to healthcare associated infections including those caused by drug resistant organisms.
Dr. Tochi’s leadership experience is one to look out for. She has played a pioneering role in the institutionalization of AMR and IPC in Nigeria through her involvement in policy development, human resources mapping, technical content development and resource mobilization.
Additionally, she leads the IPC Pillar of the Technical Working Group of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 in Nigeria. She also leads the IPC Pillar of the National COVID-19 Emergency Operations Centre at the NCDC. She is a member of the WHO Health Emergencies Program COVID-19 guidelines development group of experts and at the continental level, Dr. Tochi co-chairs the IPC Technical Working Group of the Africa Task Force for Novel Coronavirus.
Dr. Tochi advocates that health security is possible when women are empowered to make decisions at home and at work.
5. Prepare More Young Women for Leadership in Public Health and Health Security– Oyeronke Oyebanji
“Young and I’m getting it”
One can mime to these lines from the lyrics of a popular song, while thinking of all the young women moving the needle in the global public health space. Oyeronke Oyebanji is one of them and we are proud of her.
Oyeronke Oyebanji is a public health professional currently serving as the Chief of Staff for Policy and Partnerships at the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). With over five years of experience in global health, Oyeronke has demonstrated strong leadership skills by leading successful projects and providing support to public health leaders.
Prior to her current role, Oyeronke served as Technical Assistant for Policy and Partnerships to the Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) from 2016 to 2020. While at NCDC, she played a critical role in developing policies, managing partnerships, implementing International Health Regulations projects and activities, and executing NCDC’s Strengthening States for Health Security strategy.
In 2021, Oyeronke was part of the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Strategic Coordination Office, where she managed projects that aimed to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.
Oyeronke holds a Bachelor of Science in Public Health from Babcock University, Nigeria, and a Masters in Global Health Policy from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). She is also a doctoral candidate at LSHTM. Additionally, Oyeronke is a Senior Fellow at the Aspen Institute and co-convener of Public Health Incubation Hub, a network of nearly 1,000 young public health professionals in Nigeria, where she supports the empowerment and mentorship of the next generation of public health leaders.
Oyeronke strongly desires that in preparing young women for leadership in public health and health security, we smash the systemic barriers that limit opportunities for women to thrive.
Although only one day is set aside internationally every year to commemorate women, everyday is an opportunity to create systems and structures that enable women to contribute meaningfully to societal progress. We hope you are challenged by the words of these experts to initiate an enabling environment for every woman close to you to thrive without limits.