The Epidemiology of Compassion and Love: In the DNA of the NTD Movement

On January 8-10 2020, the Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics (FACE) convened a meeting at The Task Force for Global Health on an unlikely topic in the global health arena: “The Epidemiology of Compassion and Love.”

The convening drew together a highly diverse group of researchers, scholars, public health practitioners and officials, and representatives from non-profits and foundations. The attendees – from as near as Atlanta and as far as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – were demonstrably eager and curious.

The attendees of the "Epidemiology of Compassion and Love" meeting take a moment outside The Task Force headquarters to capture this one of a kind meeting.

During the conference, participants explored how epidemiological methods could be applied to investigating the role of compassion and love at various levels of health care and global health work – from the individual patient or community member, to the health workers providing essential medicines, to the national health system.

Among the participants from The Task Force was Paul Emerson, PhD, Director of the International Trachoma Initiative (ITI). Remarking on the conference, Emerson said “I felt like I was at one of those seminal meetings. I felt like this was the start of something and, in 10 years’ time, we’ll reflect back on the ideas presented.” For Emerson, the energy in the room was palpable. “It kicked off with extraordinary excitement. You don’t normally get that level of excitement at a professional meeting of this nature,” he said.

"We can look inwards first and ensure that the program is operating on principles of love and compassion and that we are treating each other with love and compassion.”

As we approach the inaugural World NTD Day on January 30th, we consider the practical application of compassion and love in efforts to control and eliminate neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). FACE Director and the driving force behind this gathering, David Addiss, MD, has more than two decades of experience in NTDs. “Compassion is part of the DNA of the NTD movement,” Addiss said. “There’s a lot of evidence that bears witness to this fact but first and foremost is that NTD elimination focuses on alleviating the suffering of those who are most neglected.”

While there is some debate around the definition and uses of the word ‘compassion’ globally, most agree that – principally – compassion is the recognition of another’s suffering and action to relieve that suffering. It has even been called the “vibrant and sustained source of motivation for many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) engaged in health, especially for those focused on [NTDs].”1

The practical application of compassion and love is clear in programs aimed to eliminate diseases like lymphatic filariasis, trachoma, and leprosy, among others. These programs not only endeavor to alleviate the intense suffering of some of the most marginalized people on the planet but also prevent future suffering, so that the next generation of individuals in currently affected communities can thrive.

When asked about the role of compassion and love in for ITI, Emerson replied, “we can look inwards first and ensure that the program is operating on principles of love and compassion and that we are treating each other with love and compassion.”

“Once we are happy that our own house is in order,” he continued, “that will reflect – or radiate out – into the way that we operate with partners.”

He spoke also about the importance of deep inquiry regarding the principles we stand by in global health. “Are we truly doing it or are we just saying it?” he asked. “Are we truly trying to minimize harm? Are we treating the end user, the people whom we actually work for, with the compassion that they deserve?”

This is indeed a seminal moment for compassion in all global health work. The Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, recently described compassion as essential for quality health services.2

Compassion has also become a core principle of transforming health sectors, as demonstrated in Ethiopia.3 Therefore, the metrics and measurement tools of epidemiology are greatly needed and can be readily applied to support the fundamental work of transforming health care and public health. “The meeting really highlighted this,” Addiss said.

FACE and its partners now enter 2020 with a clarified and exciting agenda for compassion research in global health. As indicated in our name, compassion is also in our DNA. It also reflects the values espoused by our parent organization, The Task Force, and is the fuel that inspires and drives us to not only eliminate disease and protect populations, but encourage human flourishing.

  1. Compassion is Essential for Quality Universal Health Coverage and for Effective Neglected Tropical Disease Programmes. Workshop Summary. NTD NGO Network Meeting. 24-26 September, 2018: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
  2. Ghebreyesus TA. How could health care be anything other than high quality? Lancet Glob Health. 2018 Nov;6(11): e1140–1.
  3. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Ministry of Health, 2015/16 – 2019/20. 2015.

Photo caption: A community health workers answers questions and concerns of local community members during a mass drug administration for the control and elimination of onchoceriasis and lymphatic filariasis in the Bafang district of Cameroon. Photo credit: William Nsai for Mectizan Donation Program.

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