Jamaican doctor, Peter Figueroa, recognized  as health leader at World Health Assembly

20 May 2019
Peter Figueroa

Geneva, May 20 2019 (PAHO/WHO)- Jamaican doctor and professor, Peter Figueroa, was today recognized at the World Health Assembly as a health leader for his substantial contribution to public health in Jamaica, the Caribbean, the Americas and the world,  over the past four decades.

Dr. Figueroa, a Professor of Public Health, Epidemiology and HIV-AIDS at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, received a plaque from the Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“This recognition means a lot to me. It is a true honor. I’ve been working in public health for forty years and believe that  I am an example, like many other health workers, of someone who commits their life to trying to help others,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed working in public health and it is an honor for me to make a contribution.”

After gaining his medical degree, Dr. Figueroa worked in Public Health in Jamaica during the 1970s, contributing to the movement that developed Primary Health Care in Jamaica including the introduction of community health aides, in advance of the 1978 Alma Ata Declaration. He was awarded a PhD in 1996 by the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London and has since written or co-authored more than 150 published papers and co-edited three books on a range of public health topics.

As a young doctor, Dr Figueroa, organized his colleagues in the Government service to form the Junior Doctors’ Association (JDA), now the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association (JMDA). As President of the JDA he led doctors to improve health services and their conditions of work. He was also a founding member of the Caribbean Public Health Association and the Caribbean College of Family Practitioners. In 1986 he earned a United Nations Peace Medal for his service as Vice-chair of the National Committee for the commemoration of the International Year of Peace.

Dr Figueroa’s roles over the years have included: Principal Medical Officer - Epidemiology in the Ministry of Health; Chief Medical Officer; Director of the National HIV-STI Program; Scientific Secretary and Chair of the Caribbean Health Research Council (CHRC); and temporary advisor to WHO on a range of public health topics.

Dr Figueroa has been instrumental in the HIV response in Jamaica, leading the response from its outset in 1986 until 2008 and transforming it into a highly successful multi-sectoral program. He led the development of a national surveillance system and the investigation of disease outbreaks, and established the Epidemiology Research and Training Unit, where numerous research studies were conducted including an HIV vaccine trial.

In his early career he was one of the few clinicians who was willing to provide medical care to HIV patients, and he still provides medical care for scores of people living with HIV at his medical practice. “Many people were afraid back then, but we had a responsibility. We had to deal with it, so I lead the response in HIV for many years”, he said.

“Health is more than health. It is having a just society. It is having the social conditions in place where persons, special the most vulnerable are not left behind”

Figueora mobilized considerable funding, established condom usage as a norm nationally and established the public access anti-retroviral treatment program. He also expanded STI services, leading outreach for HIV testing and prevention, resulting in a reduction of HIV prevalence among sex workers from 12 to under 4 percent. Professor Figueroa has been a member of the UNAIDS scientific expert panel since 2014.

“Health is more than health. It is having a just society. It is having the social conditions in place where persons, special the most vulnerable are not left behind”, he said.

But his contribution to public health in the Caribbean goes well beyond his work in HIV. He has provided technical advice to many Caribbean countries and to the CARICOM Council on Human and Social Development on a variety of public health issues since the 1980s. He served on the Scientific Advisory Council of the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre and since 1989 has been the Chair of the Caribbean Immunization Managers’ Annual Meeting. He is currently part of the Technical Advisory Group for immunizations conveyed by the Pan American Health Organization.

Professor Figueroa currently serves as the chair of the Caribbean Immunization Technical Advisory Group, which advises Caribbean Ministers of Health, and as chair of the Caribbean Certification Committee for Eradication of Poliovirus. Dr Figueroa has also made significant contributions to public health research, with a body of research on a wide range of public health and infectious disease topics.

Dr Figueroa has received many awards in his country, with accolades such as the Medical Association of Jamaica President’s Award, the Jamaica Public Health Hero Award, the Caribbean Health Research Council Award for outstanding contribution to Public Health and Research in the Caribbean, and the Order of Jamaica.