Tolbert Nyenswah, LLB, MPH ’12
Deputy Minister of Health for Disease Surveillance and Epidemic Control, Liberia
Johns Hopkins University Alumni Association 2015 Outstanding Recent Graduate Award Recipient
In 1993, the Liberian civil war drove Tolbert Nyenswah, LLM, LLB, MPH ’12, and his family from their small village in southeast Liberia to Cote d’Ivoire. They fled on foot with few belongs. Wading through rivers and cutting through dense bush, they eventually settled in a refugee camp sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Although only a child, his experience as a refugee still reminds him that crises—whether political or public health—do not respect borders. He considered this lesson as Ebola cases began to be reported in 2014. He was one of the first to advocate for a coordinated regional response, months before any cases turned up in neighboring countries. “Tolbert’s leadership at the local, national and international levels helped tame the epidemic and saved thousands of lives,” says David Peters, MD, DrPH ‘93, MPH ‘89, professor and chair, International Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “His ongoing work,” Peters continues, “building sustainable public health systems is laying the foundation to save many more lives in the future.”
Nyenswah was recently confirmed as Liberia’s first Deputy Minister of Health for Disease Surveillance and Epidemic Control. The new position recognizes his role in bringing an end to the worst Ebola epidemic ever known and his leadership of the incident management system that quickly detected and contained the recent isolated outbreak in the country. His appointment also signifies Liberia’s commitment to building stronger health systems that can more quickly detect and respond to future infectious disease outbreaks. “The Ebola epidemic should be a wake-up call. There will always be global health crises,” says Nyenswah. To prepare for the next one, he explains, international agencies should increase investment in national and community surveillance systems in low- and middle-income countries. In addition, training infectious disease specialists in Africa is critical. Nyenswah doesn’t forget, for example, that his own public health training was made possible in part through funding from WHO and the Global Fund.
Nyenswah began his public health career as an assistant in Liberia’s Ministry of Health. He had returned to Liberia in 1997 after completing high school at the refugee camp in Cote d’Ivoire. While working at the Ministry, he received a merit scholarship from the United Methodist Church to attend the University of Monrovia where he earned degrees in Biology and Chemistry. Through a grant from WHO’s Roll Back Malaria program, he also obtained a postgraduate diploma in public health surveillance and population disease control. This training led to his extraordinarily successful tenure in Liberia’s National Malaria Control Program. As a Senior Malaria Specialist and eventually the Program Manager, he oversaw the distribution of millions of bednets and the treatment of millions of malaria cases. Under his leadership, malaria prevalence fell from 66 percent in 2005 to 28 percent by 2011.
After becoming the first in his family to earn a university degree, Nyenswah enrolled in law school. With degrees in the sciences, he had intended to apply to medical school. However, he needed a full-time job to help support his family, including his parents and some of his 18 siblings. Medical school prohibited students from working full-time, but he could attend law school in the evenings. His legal training has proved instrumental in many of the initiatives he’s spearheaded at the Ministry. For instance, with the Department of Transportation he improved the enforcement of motorcycle helmet laws and helped craft regulations to restrict motorcycles from entering heavily congested areas where they contributed to a disproportionate number of accidents. During the height of the Ebola crisis, his expertise helped him carefully craft and revise regulations on how the government is allowed to quarantine and test individuals.
“The wisest decision I ever made was to go to Hopkins and I am grateful I was given the opportunity to attend,” says Nyenswah. After years of civil unrest, the government of Liberia needed to identify young talent to groom for leadership positions. Nyenswah was one of the candidates tapped to receive post-graduate funding as part of a Global Fund grant for malaria control and prevention. “Hopkins training definitely prepares people for the international public health market,” remarks Nyenswah. “Dr. Henry Perry’s class, for example, taught almost everything one needs to know in public health.” Nyenswah is also is thankful for the support and invaluable expertise of dean emeritus D.A. Henderson. “I thought about his book, Smallpox: The Death of a Disease, and his lectures as I began to deal with the Ebola outbreak. I also consulted with him numerous times as we implemented our country’s response.”
As part of Liberia’s 168th independence anniversary this July, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf awarded Nyenswah one of the country’s highest honors. For his leadership during the Ebola crisis, she named him Grand Commander, Order of the Star of Africa, for his service as Head of the Incident Management System that brought the Ebola crisis under control. Nyenswah remains optimistic about the ongoing containment of Ebola, and believes a vaccine—which is currently being tested in Liberia—is the key for ultimate success. As for the overall health of Liberia, he is concerned about the triple burden of disease the country faces. Chronic diseases like hypertension are on the rise; infectious diseases including malaria and HIV are still an ongoing burden; and maternal and child mortality remain at elevated levels. In 2012, the Department of International Health appointed Nyenswah as an Associate faculty member in recognition of his commitment to global public health and his leadership role in the successful implementation of public health programs. The Hopkins community looks forward to many more years of collaboration with him and is proud of his already impressive accomplishments. As Professor Bill Brieger from the Bloomberg School succinctly puts it: “If anyone could epitomize what the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health aims to achieve in the world, that person is Tolbert Nyenswah.”