Touro University's public health director promotes social justice in global village

By Sarah, Rohrs, Times-Herald staff writer 
Posted: 11/01/2012 01:08:41 AM PDT

For Touro University professor Assefaw Ghebrekidan, universal access to health care is a simple premise the school applies locally and through the prisms of increasingly complex cultures and countries.

His own experiences include growing up in sub-Saharan Africa and delivering health care to nomads and poor villagers for nearly 15 years as part of the Eritrean Popular Liberation Front.

With Ghebrekidan's core philosophy and real-life experiences guiding them, Touro's Public Health Program students travel annually to Ethiopia, Cambodia and Bolivia to sow seeds of good health in small communities.

The students also work locally with such organizations as Vallejo's Fighting Back Partnership to combat cigarette smoking, and childhood obesity.

Ghebrekidan directs his guiding light and core principles of social justice in creating a model of the world as a global village in which all have the ability to access health care.

For the last seven years, Ghebrekidan has worked at Touro University, drawn by its philosophies and opportunities, he said.

After giving a talk on the Mare Island campus, he was inspired by the school's sense of purpose and pursued the position, he said. His main tasks are to administer and build up the Public Health Program, things he's proud to have achieved -- from a handful to now more than 400 students.

And they do far more than administer health care in local settings in other countries. The program's focus is multi-faceted and 

All of these factors go into creating and delivering health care that works in those countries. Another aim is to meld clinical medicine with public health into one profession so that health care can be delivered in a holistic manner, he said.

While overseas, students also conduct research on such topics as barriers women face in getting regular pap smears and preventing cervical cancer. They may also work on ways to combat malaria, or deliver clean drinking water.

Students in Ethiopia this fall worked in three sites to study anemia and attitudes regarding women, and also how the HIV virus may be transmitting through breast milk from mother to child.

Ghebrekidan said he has a wealth of experiences to offer after growing up in a poverty-stricken corner of Africa and delivering health care to villagers and nomads.

As part of a family which could afford to send him to school, he earned his medical degree at Haile Selassie I University in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He was also the dean and founder of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Asmara from 1994-1999.

While in the Eritrean Popular Liberation Front, he served in various capacities in the country's 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia, according to his biography on Touro's website. His hands-on work included rebuilding the national health care system, providing emergency services, primary care and preventive health services.

In 1999, he moved to the United States to pursue a degree in public health at the University of California, Berkeley. Ghebrekidan's family still remains in Eritrea, but he said he cannot return due to a letter he wrote in 2000 to the country's president.

Signed by 13 others, the letter was sent to Eritrea's president, Isaias Afewerki, who is considered one of Africa's worst dictators, he said. In the correspondence, authors asked to meet with the leader to discuss conditions in the country.

Twelve years later, Ghebrekidan remains in the Bay Area, promoting social justice in health care from this side of the world and in a narrowing global village. He believes Americans are not isolated from what takes place across the globe.

"We cannot have a healthy American community without a healthy global community. We're all in one neighborhood," he said.

Assefaw Ghebrekidan

Age: 66

Position: Touro University professor and director of the school's Public Health Program.

City: Berkeley. Native of Eritrea, Africa

Family: Two brothers and one sister who still live in the sub-Saharan African country.

Quote: "Health care should not be a commodity sold to the highest bidder. Everyone has a right to access health care."

Contact staff writer Sarah Rohrs at or (707) 553-6832. Follow her on Twitter @SarahVTH.