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Faculty Profile

Wendy Johnson

Wendy Johnson

Wendy Johnson fights health inequalities in the field… and in the classroom

Students can expect to learn more than just what health problems exist in developing countries and how to manage them in Wendy Johnson's International Health course offered through the Extended MPH Degree Program. That's because Dr. Johnson, a clinical associate professor with the University of Washington's School of Public Health (UW-SPH), has over 10 years of experience working in developing countries where significant public health issues co-exist with political warfare.

Johnson began her global health career in 1998 when she worked alongside indigenous midwives in Guatemala to establish a birthing center and midwifery school. This project led Johnson to work with Dr. Charles Clements, author of Witness to War. Inspired by Dr. Clements, Johnson went to Chiapas, Mexico, with Doctors for Global Health to provide medical services and train indigenous health advisors in the community. After her residency at the University of New Mexico, she brought her seasoned training experiences to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, where she worked with an underserved population that was predominantly Hispanic.

Through her national and international health advocacy work, Johnson believes that the key to overcoming disease burdens in both developed and developing countries is to strengthen and rebuild public health care systems.

And that is exactly what she is doing. In addition to teaching and clinical practice, Johnson currently serves as the director of New Initiatives for Health Alliance International (HAI), a non-profit organization headquartered in Seattle, Washington, that works hard to promote universal access to health care. This organization addresses the structural 'root' causes that underlie and perpetuate political, economic, and health inequalities in developing countries. These structural components include exorbitant foreign debt, structural adjustment programs, and armed conflict. As Johnson argues, a country's burden of disease must be viewed within the context of its politics and its economy.

The sub-Saharan country of Mozambique is a case in point. In 1987, HAI began working with the Mozambique Ministry of Health to rebuild the country's war-torn public health infrastructure. Johnson joined HAI in 2004 as a field director in Mozambique. With an HIV prevalence rate over 20%, Johnson directed programs in HIV testing and treatment, as well as malaria prevention and reproductive health care.

According to Johnson, health inequalities in countries like Mozambique cannot be fought solely from the ground the battle also includes fighting the larger forces that exacerbate diseases and keep developing countries impoverished. One of the most acute problems faced by the Global South is the lack of trained doctors and nurses, she says. Due to foreign debt and wage bills imposed by the International Monetary Fund, developing countries like Mozambique have been unable to invest in social welfare infrastructures, such as medical education. "It's like having only 17 doctors for the entire population of Seattle," she says.

As Johnson states, the lack of a strong, self-supporting health care system creates a "vicious cycle," leaving developing countries dependent upon donor nations for money and technical support. In conjunction with HAI and the UW-SPHCM, Johnson is working with Mozambique, as well as other African countries such as Cote d'Ivoire and Ethiopia, to train medical personnel and strengthen existing public health infrastructures.

Johnson looks forward to bringing her experiences and passion for global health disparities to the classroom this fall.