P&S Journal: Winter 1997, Vol.17, No.1
Alumna Helps UNICEF Develop Health Strategy in Eastern Europe
By Peter Wortsman
Amidst dire conditions of economic, social, and political chaos, Susan Kessler'57, a senior adviser to UNICEF since 1987, has been trying to make life a little more livable for the children of Eastern Europe.
Susan Kessler'57 in the Czech Republic
Through programs she helped develop to foster the health and welfare of women and children, UNICEF is trying to influence local government agencies in the turbulent region to assess, prioritize, and address the most pressing public health problems.
Delegated to help create a UNICEF development program following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Dr. Kessler's first related mission took her to Romania in 1990, where the reported dismal conditions of indigent children in state institutions sparked an international uproar. In subsequent trips, she saw firsthand proof of a mushrooming public health crisis in the former Warsaw Pact nations and the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. The economic, social, and political turmoil in the region, not to speak of the state of siege in many areas, led to total collapse of the networks of health services in place. Antibiotics and other basic medications were lacking. Health professionals had long gone without pay. And while non-governmental groups provide an undergirding of support in Western society, the areas Dr. Kessler visited enjoyed no such safety nets.
Formidable frustrations and hurdles notwithstanding, she is buoyed by limited gains and gratified "to know that you can affect the well-being of a large number of people. Just to see that kids get their vaccines, to teach parents that they can make a difference, and influence political leaders to do the right thing through policies favoring children--that's very satisfying indeed!"
Recently retired from a full-time affiliation with UNICEF, Dr. Kessler, now a consultant, continues to invest her work with the knowledge and know-how of a lifelong career in international public health and her own childhood memory as a refugee from Hitler's Germany. Her wide-ranging experience includes work with the World Health Organization and tenures as director of public health programs for the Organization for Rehabilitation Through Training, director of international health for the American Public Health Association, and executive secretary of the World Federation of Public Health Associations.
The solid grounding in patient history taking and clinical diagnosis and treatment she received at P&S has served her well in her work overseas. "So much of public health," she says, "really involves taking the history of a community, learning to look and assess problems. Though the application is very different, the basic principles are the same."