Women Leaders in Polio Eradication: Dr Sue Gerber
Wherever she is in the world, Dr Gerber aims to deliver demonstrable impact to communities.
Whether in Pakistan, Seattle or Somalia, Dr Sue Gerber, a Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), is working with partner organizations to support polio workers – those delivering vaccines, educating the public or conducting disease surveillance.
“The more time you can spend getting your shoes dusty walking and working together in the field, the better you will understand the challenges,” she says.
On one trip to Borno State in Nigeria, Gerber spent a week with community vaccinators – all well-respected women who, despite the massive geographic region they had to cover, maintained good spirits throughout their long travels. Across her work, Gerber finds motivation by staying closely engaged with the needs of those on the frontlines of the polio eradication effort.
While she studied to be an epidemiologist in college, one of Gerber’s first global health experiences was in the Peace Corps in Liberia, working with an immunization programme combatting childhood communicable diseases. Here, Gerber coordinated with Rotary International to secure meal funding for health workers travelling long distances to vaccinate children, foreshadowing collaboration integral to the GPEI. While in the Peace Corps, she found mentorship with legendary smallpox eradicator Stan Foster, who not only helped inspire her to work on polio eradication but also pointed Gerber toward her next role at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Gerber began work at the CDC on sexually transmitted diseases, first in California, and then later in Botswana and other countries in Africa. While in Los Angeles, she relied on frontline workers to help inform counseling and testing sessions assisting women with STD testing access in low-income areas.
Gerber’s next move was to CDC’s Global Immunization Division (GID) to support polio eradication in East Africa and Nigeria. She returned to the U.S. to lead GID’s Africa team for diseases of eradication and elimination, later serving as Deputy Director of CDC’s Namibia country programme.
Committed to Polio
Working collaboratively to combat other infectious diseases around the globe paved the way for Gerber to dedicate her career to polio. First at the CDC and now at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gerber’s role in polio eradication efforts has evolved, but her drive to support health workers at every turn has remained steadfast.
“My responsibilities change over time depending on need and circumstance,” says Gerber. Currently, she supports polio eradication in Pakistan, by working with the national Emergency Operation Center (EOC) to improve supplemental vaccination campaigns and routine immunization services, and support integration with other primary health care services.
Gerber also supports efforts in Somalia, partnering with a variety of international organizations to work directly with in-country teams strengthening surveillance. As a member of the global surveillance task team, she develops strategic plans, guidance, trainings and assessments, incorporating frontline worker input on best practices for accessing hard-to-reach and insecure areas.
Innovating During a Pandemic
The resilience of frontline workers in the face of crisis continues to be the backbone of combatting diseases. This is especially true for today’s polio programme amidst the current global pandemic. While COVID-19 temporarily interrupted immunization delivery, Gerber remains optimistic about global health progress, adding that “during this pandemic, technology use has helped create innovative solutions to key problems.”
During the pandemic, polio programme assets have been instrumental in supporting COVID-19 response efforts. In almost every country with GPEI infrastructure and resources, polio staff have lent their expertise to conducting COVID-19 surveillance, combatting misinformation and sharing coordination mechanisms for pandemic response alongside programmatic activities.
The Role of Women
“Women have always been a critically important part of the programme, especially at the frontline,” says Gerber.
Across polio-affected countries, female vaccinators are crucial to building community trust and reaching all children, especially in communities where cultural norms prevent men from entering households. Despite this outsized importance to the programme, women are still heavily underrepresented in authority and management positions.
Ensuring that more women are at the table making decisions is a key part of Gerber’s drive. “Effective leaders lead from who they are,” Gerber says. By fostering strong working relationships, mentoring younger women and taking the time to listen to frontline workers, stakeholders and leaders, Gerber is able to channel her strengths and perspective as a woman into her role in eradicating polio.
Gerber adds, “I also think that representation matters. When women see women taking on a leadership role, they feel confident to lead and contribute in their own way.” In her own experience, seeing women mobilizing global resources, devising strategies or sparking catalytic action has provided an incredible source of inspiration.
Gerber is proud to be involved in eradicating polio – from working in the field to supporting new policies and approaches to bringing much-needed perspectives to the table – all while ensuring that “frontline workers are knowledgeable, prepared and protected.” Gerber is also working with Johns Hopkins University and their consortium partners on an academic course disseminating lessons learned from polio eradication efforts.
Her advice for the next generation of public health workers wanting to follow in her footsteps? “If you’re thinking about going into public or community health, please know you can make a difference.