Africa Diaspora Health Thought Leadership

A tribute to a great Epidemiologist and a great friend of Africa

Editor’s note: Chikwe Ihekweazu was Curator of Nigeria Health Watch until he was appointed as Chief Executive of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, a role that obviously made it impossible for him to continue directing the editorial content of NHW. However, when he sent in this piece, although not directly related to health in Nigeria, we thought it carried an important message and so welcomed his contribution, which we share with you below.

A couple of weeks ago, news trickled in that the world had lost Professor Hans Rosling. In my last conversation with him late in 2015, he was effusive in praising the role of the ASEOWA team – the African Union Support to Ebola in West Africa -that was sent to support the response to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.“Chikwe,” he said, “Most people will not admit this but the role of the ASEOWA mission was the turning point – a bunch of skilled, and committed Africans that were willing to work in the hospitals to restore critical services and not stay in offices in front of computers.”

Hans Rosling worked extensively on Ebola in Africa. Photo Courtesy:

At the time, I was working on a project evaluating the success of the mission and he said in no uncertain terms, “Yes, their organisation may not have been great, but there is no question about it, we must keep it alive! Africans have the skills and context to respond to their own challenges and there is very little that a white haired, old, professor like me has to teach you about epidemiology in Africa”.

His work in Liberia was well respected across the response because he was not sent by any big organisation – he convinced his University in Sweden that he needed to be at the heart of the Ebola response and they supported his mission, and he easily became the most respected voice guiding the response in Liberia. The Head of Surveillance of the Liberia Ministry of Health said in an interview, “He just walked into the office and introduced himself”. In a great article describing his work in Liberia – Science reports that on arrival in Monrovia he started by doing simple things, such as proofreading the ministry’s epidemiological reports, which he says nobody else had time for. He changed an important detail in the updates: Rather than listing “0 cases” for counties that had not reported any numbers—which could be misleading—he left them blank. Next, he tackled the problem behind the missing data. Some health care workers couldn’t afford to call in their reports, because they were paying the phone charges themselves. Rosling set up a small fund to pay for scratch cards that gave them airtime.

Hans Rosling with some of his colleagues

Africa just lost a friend and a huge advocate who always pushed for the continent to take its rightful place in the history of the Ebola response.

Hans was one of the best-known epidemiologists in the world. Explaining one’s profession as an “Epidemiologist” was always a huge challenge until Hans Rosling came along. He literally burst into our consciousness with his TED talk in 2006 – The best stats you’ve ever seen. That single talk has been watched over 16 million times and is one of the most popular TED talks of all time. If you genuinely do not have 18 minutes to watch that talk, watch this one for three minutes; in probably one of the best data animations that I have ever seen to make a point in under three minutes, Hans Rosling demonstrates the incredible progress made in the world in childhood mortality, especially in the “developing world”.

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The company he founded, Gapminder, has contributed to the way the world sees Africa and the way we see ourselves, by interpreting and illustrating data in a way no one else had done. His animated and passionate style challenged the way epidemiology professors teach this beautiful subject – including using design to illustrate data to great effect, bringing statistics to life.

When I met Hans with a group of other enthusiasts in a hotel lobby in Qatar, he sat down with us and spoke freely about his work and passion. With no airs and no ego, he pushed my friend Ike Anya and I, two public health physicians in awe of his work, to use data and our voices to push our countries harder to do the right thing. I left that meeting reflecting on my statistics lectures that held every Friday at 2 pm in the College of Medicine of the University of Nigeria and wondered how different the careers of many of my fellow medical students would have been if we had had Professor Rosling as our teacher.

As I join the world in mourning Hans Rosling, I reflect on how important his work is in my current responsibility in leading the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control. Almost none of the data on the burden of infectious diseases in Nigeria is available on the website of the organisation that I lead. How can Nigerians hold us accountable for the work that we do on their behalf if we are not able to share with them the burden of the diseases that we are supposed to be working on?

Hans will remain an inspiration to me, and to every epidemiologist. Our profession means very little if we are not able to communicate the meaning of our work to the people that we serve. There should not be any set of data too difficult to explain. Learning the science of statistics is not enough if one does not put in as much effort into the art of communicating it.

Hans Rosling may have left this world, but he inspired the world. We truly stand on the shoulders of giants.

11 replies on “A tribute to a great Epidemiologist and a great friend of Africa”

Thank you, Dr Chikwe, for this nice tribute. Yes, I’m one of those privileged to have learned trends in multi-country population health profile using Hans Rosling’s statistical animations.

His statistical demonstrations in epidemiological trends looked to me then like pure ‘magic’ but at the same time made a tonne of sense to most of my classmates then. Working with his “Gapminder” tool in drawing out statistical results across countries was for me a mind-blowing experience.

True, Hans Rosling will be sorely missed by all who have at one time or the other directly or indirectly interacted with him or his statistical tools/innovations.

Good night, Hans.

Has Rosling. I was also captured by his talk. The least we should honour him with is making our Nigerian data come alive and dance to the ordinary man woman and more so children.

Certainly, he will continue to live in the hearts of those he touched and the knowledge propagated for the benefits of mankind. May his soul rest in perfect peace.

I join to mourn professor Hans Rosling. He was a great guy. I encountered him first during my MPH program. I listened (watched) his TED talk on the “200 years that changed the world”. It was simply breathtaking. I have never seen anything like that in my life. He made statistics and epidemiology come alive. I say epidemiology in three dimensions – a very ingenious thing he did.
He is gone but his memory lives on.

Thank you Dr Chikwe for this tribute to a man that never looked on status before relating with people. The wisest epidemiologist and statistician I have met in my life. I learnt a lot from Prof. My first meeting with Professor Hans was accidental when he dropped a stranded guy (me) after work at my apartment in Liberia.

There are more to say about Professor Hans but they are kept in the mind for memories.

Sleep on boss! Cheerio!! May your soul rest in peace!!!

He left something for us. He will certainly continue to live in the heart of so many of us. Thank you for this tribute.

Professor Hans was a great instructor and a wonderful teacher, his lecture sessions and lecture series are all encompassing, enlightening and captivating. I have been following some of his lectures online and his lectures are part of the videos my school (Texila American University) upload on my Moodle.
Though you are no more with us in the physical, you will always be with us in our thoughts and practice. Rest in peace.

A very inspiring and eye-opening read for me. Now I’m asking myself “How can I translate what I know into real solutions to the seemingly intractable challenges we face in our health sector?”. Thank you Dr Chikwe for sharing this.

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