Please tell us about yourself
Florida International University (FIU) Masters of Public Health Graduate student Neha Upadhyay’s life-long interest in working with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) prompted her to apply for an internship with the World Health Organization (WHO) this summer. She was one of 530 individuals chosen from more than 10,000 applicants for an internship. Upon receiving the good news, Upadhyay was off to Geneva, Switzerland, for the opportunity of a lifetime.
Non-communicable diseases are illnesses and conditions that are non-infectious and non-transmissible. Simply put, you can’t get — or give — them to another person. Upadhyay’s internship involved research on NCDs, addressing capacity and how low- and middle-income countries could improve their ability to address the ongoing epidemic of diseases. While at the WHO, Upadhyay worked under the NCD cluster in the Department of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion.
How does your work benefit the community?
Globally, 35 million deaths annually are attributed to NCDs.Eighty percent of these deaths are in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs). Although many people are aware of the health issues surrounding maternal and child health and tobacco use on a global level, not many are conscious about the growing epidemic of NCDs in low- and middle-income countries. The projected deaths due to NCDs are expected to increase by 17 percent by 2015.
Major non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease and the disease outcomes share common behavioral risk factors which include tobacco use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and the harmful use of alcohol.
“Policies for the prevention and control of NCDs need to address these unhealthy behaviors,” says Upadhyay, who is in her last year of the MPH program in the Department of Epidemiology in the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work. “This requires health to be a fundamental consideration of public policies in all sectors such as transport, agriculture, education, finance, social services and trade. An enabling policy environment is fundamental to sustaining healthy behavior change.”
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
Nepali by race, born and raised in Malaysia, Upadhyay’s interest in NCDs was elevated when she returned to Nepal for medical school. Working in a developing nation where NCDs are on the rise and a major cause of death made her realize the importance of studying the patterns and determinants of the diseases in the human population.
“The experience also made me appreciate the importance of good governance, and what happens in its absence, when it comes to improving the population’s health,” says Upadhyay. “Without a guiding government, populations are at a loss and remain needy for the social determinants of health such as health care, housing, education and infrastructure.”
Tell us about your internship
Upadhyay says her summer internship helped her gain knowledge and experience to better understand if lower- and middle-income countries have the resources or capacity to effect such policy changes. She concluded that addressing issues like the social determinants of health, implementing surveillance of chronic diseases, and promoting health in all policies could help developing countries, including her own, handle the burgeoning NCD epidemic. In her internship, Upadhyay helped compile and analyze epidemiologic data. She evaluated health programs to assess the quality and effectiveness of public health interventions and drafted technical papers in capacity-building for low- and middle-income countries for the prevention of NCDs.
The short-term effects of her research will help promote awareness of the worsening NCD epidemic in low- and middle-income countries, and the long-term goal is to help integrate regulatory and legislative actions across health and health-related sectors.
“Global agencies like the World Health Organization play an important role in promoting evidence-based research and working alongside their member states in the provision of guiding policies to promote equitable health for people from all walks of life in all countries,” says Upadhyay. “I’m happy to say that one of WHO’s main agendas is addressing health inequities around the world, particularly in developing countries.”
One of the highlights of her internship was attending the World Health Assembly where she got the opportunity to meet heads of state from all around the world. On another occasion, she met the democratic leader of Myanmar and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi, who delivered her first speech at the International Labor Organization.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my work,” says Upadhyay. “I worked with a really friendly team at WHO. They made me and the other interns feel like a part of the team as soon we joined them. I consider myself fortunate to have received the opportunity to work at the World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.”
What do you do currently?
Iam a supervisor at Sutter Health which is a not-for-profit health system in Northern California, headquartered in Sacramento. It includes doctors, hospitals and other health care services in more than 100 Northern California cities and towns.