Wednesday, the University of Michigan awarded the Thomas Francis Jr. Medal in Global Health to Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder and chairperson of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee non-governmental organization.

The ceremony, attended by more than 100 people, was held at the Robertson Auditorium at the Ross School of Business.

The nonprofit aims to improve public health by promoting oral rehydration therapy and improved birthing practices in Bangladesh’s poorest, most rural and impoverished areas. Abed founded BRAC in 1972, during the aftermath of the Bangladesh Liberation War.

The medal — which honors an individual who made significant impacts on the field of public health — was presented to Abed by University President Mark Schlissel.  

In giving the award, Schlissel noted the importance of dedicated public health workers, which he related to the role of public health in relief efforts for the Flint water crisis.

“As we honor the sheer size and scope of BRAC’s work, and everything we have seen in Flint, give us plenty of evidence that there is much more work to do in the field of public health,” Schlissel said. “The realities, struggles, aspirations and dreams of poor and marginalized people are remarkably similar despite cultural difference across different countries. Let us all be grateful there are public health champions, like Abed, in this world.”

Abed began his speech by honoring the medal’s namesake, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., who was an epidemiologist at the University during the 1940s and a mentor to Jonas Salk, who is credited with the development of the polio vaccine.

“By all measures, Professor Thomas Francis was a great scientist and educator,” Abed said. “His mentoring of Jonas Salk led to the discovery of the Polio vaccine. The impact of this discovery is now known across the globe, and Polio is almost a thing of the past.”

Abed told the audience about the significant turnaround in Bangladesh’s public health and decreasing poverty rates. He noted that at the time of BRAC’s establishment, Bangladesh was the second-poorest nation in the world, and now is in the lower-middle income bracket.

Abed noted that Bangladesh has rapidly outpaced other South Asian countries in improving public health. Life expectancy, he noted, has increased from 40 years to 70 years on average. Infant and maternal mortality rates, as well as total fertility rates in Bangladesh have dramatically decreased, and are now lower than those of India and Pakistan.

This major turnaround in public health, Abed said, was accomplished while spending the lowest amount on health care in the region.

“The story of Bangladesh is one of the ‘greatest mysteries of global health,’ ” Abed said, quoting the British medical journal, The Lancet. “There are several reasons for this paradox, including the fallout from the Liberation War, an expanding health sector, nongovernmental organizations and an increased role of social determinants in public health, particularly with the empowerment of women.”

Female empowerment spoke extensively on female empowerment, saying BRAC trains mothers give their own oral rehydration solution to malnourished children, which he said was as a good example of BRAC’s empowerment of rural Bangladeshi women.

Abed concluded his acceptance speech by distilling BRAC’s organizational model down to four key elements to success: use of the best delivery agents to involve community members, increasing the simplicity of messages and methods, promoting intersectionality and building robust management, and monitoring systems to ensure that institutional goals are being met.

The acceptance speech was followed by a question and answer session moderated by Matthew Boulton, senior associate dean for Global Public Health.

Public Health student Thilo Rattay said he thought Abed was a worthy recipient of the Thomas Francis Jr. Medal for his commitment to public health.  

“Sir Fazle is definitely an outstanding figure through his creation of BRAC and the good work that his organization has done,” Rattay said. “However, BRAC’s work in Bangladesh is a credit not only to Sir Fazle, but also to the many other people who help organize and oversee the spending of millions of dollars not just in Bangladesh, but worldwide.”

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