A working life
As Executive Director at the Partnership for Child Development in the School of Public Health, Dr Lesley Drake says she is powered by the enthusiasm of foreign governments, deworming tablets – and a distinctly British soap.
For me, it all started with worms. When I worked in Vietnam and China, the focus of my PhD and postdoc years was on the effect of parasitic infections and their impact on health and child development. In Bihar, for example, one of the poorest areas of India, the Partnership for Child Development (PCD) supported the state government to deworm 17 million children in six months. Thanks to the model we developed, this has evolved into a national programme that now deworms 220 million children a year. My passion is to get these types of programmes to become policy, because otherwise as soon as the money runs out the programme stops.
The PCD helps countries use their own systems to support the development of children. We don’t get involved with the politics, but we guide it with the evidence – as a scientist, it’s all about translating evidence into action for me. We have had success in more than 50 countries and are especially impressed with what has been achieved, for example in Ethiopia, Ghana, Zanzibar and Nigeria, where the government has allocated money to provide a daily, well-balanced, locally-sourced meal for more than eight million schoolchildren as part of a national social investment programme. As they also pay small-hold farmers to grow the crops, it’s win-win; children are fed and attend school and the rural communities benefit from a stable market.
Working in poor countries to benefit poor children is rewarding but it is also emotionally challenging. My way of coping after a challenging visit to a poor community is to catch up with Coronation Street. The reality/fantasy nature of a soap helps keep me grounded and in touch with my own sense of community as a northern woman. I am not sure my colleagues quite understand that in the same way!
I spend about half my time travelling, and I’m going back to Nigeria soon. Whenever I’m there and see the children washing their hands before they eat a locally produced nutritious meal with no worms in their bellies, it feels amazing to be a part of it.
Lesley Drake (PhD Pure and Applied Biology 1992) has managed the Partnership for Child Development, which is based at Imperial College London, since 2007. She is also Deputy Director of the London Centre for Neglected Tropical Disease Research and founded the Deworm the World Initiative.