Life devoted to health

Dr. Kesetebirhan Admasu, Former Health Minister
Dr. Kesetebirhan Admasu, Former Health Minister

Reforming the health sector, advocating maternal and children’s health, helping  Ethiopia  achieve the Millennium Development Goals are some of  former Health Minister,  Dr. Kesetebirhan  Admasu’s achievements during his term, between 2012- 2016.  He was born  and raised in an area commonly known as Cherkos, attended his primary school in Feleg Yordanos and went to Abiyot Kirs for high  school. Then he went to Gonder Medical college for BA and post graduate studies. Before he became minister he served as state minster and director general in the Ministry of Health. Dr Kesetebirhan who is a father of two boys and a daughter has now been assigned to lead The Roll Back Malaria Partnership to eliminate malaria in developing countries. Capitals’ Tesfaye Getnet sat down with Dr. Kesetebirhan to explore his past work and his new job. Excerpts:

Capital: You have served four years as Minster of Health during this time there has been an increase in health extension workers. Is this your proudest accomplishment? 

Dr. Kesetebirhan Admasu: It is one of many achievements that I am proud of. I’m happy to have gone from being a doctor to an expert working in the Ministry of Health to a team leader, director general, state minister and finally a minster. Ethiopia has been progressing in health care and I think we are building a responsive system that addresses the needs of the community and that can alleviate public health emergencies.

Capital: What issues should the Ministry of Health continue working on?

Dr. Kesetebirhan: The health system in pastoralist regions like Somali, Afar and to some extent Benishnagul and Gambela to make it more relevant to the nomadic life style of these communities. Health finance is another challenge. It needs to have a broader base particularly more domestic financing. The Ethiopia health system heavily relies on donor financing so it is really important to think critically and find ways to obtain more domestic finance.

Capital: How would you assess the quality of health care in Ethiopia?

Dr. Kesetebirhan: Quality is a relative term but I think that there has been progress in reducing maternal and child mortality, controlling HIV, reducing new cases of TB, improving the survival of TB patients, all these things are a testament to improving services. We want to improve the quality of care in our tertiary and secondary hospitals. The primary health care, the health extension platform and the platform based on the primary health center and so on is delivering results. We need to make sure they are getting enough medical equipment, supplies and expertise, they are doing wonderful things. Ethiopia is not at the apex of quality and we are striving to improve to meet the demands of the community. The government has worked to ensure the poor and the majority in rural areas has access to quality basic health service.

Capital: How can we keep highly qualified doctors in Ethiopia?

Dr. Kesetebirhan: The government has identified this as a major problem and has introduced mechanisms to address it and it has created many chances for them to get scholarships and to allow them to work a part time job in a government hospital or another clinic.  You can’t stop the mobility of the people. Highly expert people are needed everywhere and migration is national. As a government what needs to done is to address the supply and the demand issue. A long time ago we had medical schools which graduated less than 200 hundred students. When I graduated from Gonder there were only 50 and the medical schools in Jimma and Addis Ababa had the same number of students. This was not enough to meet the high demand of the 75 million people. I remember that half of my class went to abroad for better salary. Now, however there are more medical schools and we have 20,000 medical students. So let’s say half leave the country we still have a significant number of   physicians.  Ethiopia has the potential to become like Cuba, the Philippines and India and export health care workers. For instance three years ago we sent pharmacists to Namibia and  they are in the process of taking Ethiopian nurses, laboratory technicians,  psychiatric nurses and so on. There are already the possibilities of sending people to other countries. We are not in the position to send doctors and physicians because we do not have enough for ourselves but we can send nurses and other health workers in medical areas.

Capital: Tell us about family planning as Ethiopia’s population continues to increase.

Dr. Kesetebirhan: Ethiopia has shown remarkable progress in access to family planning and increasing the number of women who are using modern family planning methods. Today it is around 42 percent which is a massive improvement and this improvement in fact was accentuated after the year 2000 when the health extension program was introduced. But there is still room for improvement despite the success. Today 25 percent of women are still not using modern family planning for various reasons that means three million pregnancies happen every year and one fourth are not planned. The government provides family planning free of charge to every woman who wants it. Our policy is giving information, skills and providing services to women so that if they want to limit the number of children we can assist them based on their choice.

Capital: Tell us about your new job.

Dr. Kesetebirhan: I will be the chief executive officer of the Roll back Malaria Partnership this month, giving me the opportunity to work closely with Africa. Fighting malaria is something I was passionate about while I was health minister so in March I will move to Geneva and lead the partnership towards the sustainable development goal 2030, to eliminate malaria in 30 countries including Ethiopia, and reduce the mortality rate by 90 percent. It will be an exciting journey because malaria is something that can easily be prevented but unfortunately a child dies from malaria every two minutes because governments and health systems have failed to reach people who are most vulnerable.

Capital: Do you have any future plans to rejoin a government institution?

Dr. Kesetebirhan: I enjoyed every minute working as the Minister of Health. Only time will tell what will happen in the future.