Lab Matters Summer 2018 - Page 14

partner profile minutes with Dr. Mary Travis Bassett by Nancy Maddox, MPH, writer Mary Travis Bassett, MD, MPH, was appointed commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in January 2014, after 30 years working in public health, with a focus on health equity. Early in her career, Bassett served on the medical faculty at the University of Zimbabwe, followed by a stint as associate director of health equity at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Southern Africa Office. She has also served as deputy commissioner of health promotion and disease prevention at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, where she established district public health offices in Central Harlem, the South Bronx and other city neighborhoods with an excess disease burden. Most recently, she served as program director for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s African Health Initiative and Child Wellbeing Program. Bassett grew up in New York City and earned her MD at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. She received a BA in history and science from Harvard University and an MPH from the University of Washington. How did your interest in science begin? My father, Emmett Bassett, was a bench scientist, working in immunochemistry. He was also a lifelong community activist with a strong commitment to social justice and civil rights. He was one of the last students of George Washington Carver, an esteemed black scientist at what was then known as the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. My father brought home experiments for us to do as kids. And every year on our birthday he brought us into his lab. I remember bending glass in Bunsen burners. What prompted your move to Zimbabwe after earning your MD? Like many things in life, it was a combination of my work and personal lives. I was finishing a fellowship program at the University of Washington that included getting my MPH degree, and I was at a point in life where I was free. I decided that, like many students of African descent, I wanted to work in Africa. So I wrote to a friend whose parents were on the faculty of the University of Zimbabwe. I got a letter written on one of those old-fashioned 12 LAB MATTERS Summer 2018 aerograms saying, “Dr. Bassett, you may collect your ticket at Thomas Cook [travel agency] and present yourself for interview in our offices in Harare at such and such a date.” I finished up in Seattle and went to my interview. I was successful. But I arrived in Zimbabwe extraordinarily ill-prepared to be useful to them. It was a huge learning experience for me. And, as it happened, I arrived just as the AIDS epidemic was beginning to display itself in Zimbabwe. And that turned out to be one of the worst AIDS epidemics in the world and came to dominate my work in the years that followed. I had the privilege of working with people who had some of the best training there is, people who returned home after [Zimbabwe’s] independence and were committed to advancing the health of the country. It was extraordinary what was accomplished. I ended up staying much longer than I expected—I went for my interview in 1985, and I left [Zimbabwe] in 2002. It was such an honor. What are some of the AIDS prevention interventions you developed in Zimbabwe? Our work focused on training peer educators to tell factory workers and others about condom use and reduction of sexual partners. We also tried the female condom for sex workers. They liked it because they didn’t have to negotiate; much to my surprise, they reported that men were often too drunk to notice it. They were expensive though. And then we did programs aimed at schools, mostly educating girls about negotiating safe sex and also negotiating not having sex. I also participated in US-funded studies using antiretroviral drugs to reduce mother- to-child transmission. And I finished up my work there bringing HIV treatment to those infected, something that had been seen as unaffordable to Africa, to Zimbabwe, before [the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] was introduced. In retrospect, all of the interventions were useful and important, but there really should have been a national emergency declared. Infection rates hit 30% of adults. You have focused on health equity throughout your public health career. How do you explain this important issue? When I talk about health disparities, what I’m talking about is the patterning of health by social position. Anywhere you look, you will find that patterning—by income; in racial hierarchical societies, by race; by gender and sexual orientation; by economic position. Any way we are defined socially influences our risk of disease. And the most important driver is typically poverty. PublicHealthLabs @APHL