When Paul Farmer was an undergraduate at Duke University in the early 1980s, he used the money he had won from a student essay contest to fund his first trip to Haiti. There, Farmer joined a team of public health workers—and he had his first experience with how different life, and particularly medical care, is in one of the world’s poorest nations. 

“We were part of a project that involved going from house to house to find out what the local health problems were,” recalls Farmer, now a medical doctor and the Kolokotrones University Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard University. Of the six people in his team, only three would survive to finish the project. One died from typhoid fever, another after complications from childbirth, and a third from a misdiagnosed case of cerebral malaria. 

The Partners In Health Advance Ebola Response Team travels to the Grand Gedeh region of Liberia from Monrovia, aboard a UN flight. (Rebecca E. Rollins)

“These were all vital young people,” says Farmer. “If only there had been a decent clinic or hospital in the area, they could have been treated even after the system failed at primary prevention. Every step of the way, these young people could have been saved.” 

His experience in Haiti was a driving force behind the founding of Partners In Health (PIH), an organization Farmer and three colleagues formed in 1987, during his third year at Harvard Medical School. PIH is a global initiative dedicated to providing high-quality healthcare to poor communities. The organization’s guiding principle is that healthcare is a human right—one that much of the world unfortunately lacks access to. 

Dr. Paul Farmer visits with survivors of the Ebola virus to learn about their experiences during illness in holding and treatment units in Freetown, Sierra Leone. To his left is Dr. Mohamed Bailor Barrie with WellBody Alliance. (Rebecca E. Rollins)

“We started Partners In Health because we had seen what happens to healthcare systems in extreme poverty,” says Farmer. “We needed to address the appalling lack of basic health services for the poor all over the world.” 

Transforming Global Health on the Front Lines

In 2007, PIH began working in partnership with the Government of Rwanda to help rebuild the country’s health system. The most recent example is the newly-built Rwinkwavu Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  Here Dr. Farmer and Fabrice Nusenga, Infrustucture Manager at Rwinkwavu, provide an overview of progress to date.

For almost three decades, PIH has relied on partnerships to bring modern medicine to the most underserved communities. That means teaming up with leading physicians and researchers, medical institutions and academic programs, and other health-focused nonprofits to treat and prevent disease across the globe, from Haiti to Peru to Rwanda to Mexico to Kazakhstan. 

“We’re dedicated to strengthening health systems and improving healthcare delivery in these poor areas that need it most,” says Farmer. Coca-Cola is proud to be one of PIH’s partners, supporting PIH’s commitment to universal healthcare equality. 

Following meetings this past June at Rwinkwavu Hospital in Kayonza in June 2014, the first district where Partners in Health started its work in Rwanda, Dr. Paul Farmer takes time with young women who are part of the Kundumurimo Duterimbere Artisanal Cooperative. The cooperative is part of the Women and Girls Initiative, started by Didi Bertrand-Farmer, Paul’s wife and Senior Advisor for Community Health. The Initiative aims to drive economic stability and empowerment of local women, which in turn raises community development and health. Behind the women and Dr. Farmer are beautiful hand-made bags, carriers, and other goods available for sale.

Currently, PIH serves more than 2.4 million people through 76 health facilities in 12 countries. The organization recruits doctors from the U.S. and other nations to run clinics and treat patients; they also train local health workers to care for patients. PIH builds medical facilities and community infrastructure to make sure water and sanitation systems are in place, and the group raises money to purchase more advanced medical equipment. 

Since that first trip to Haiti, Farmer has personally taken on healthcare challenges all over the world. He and his team have battled drug-resistant tuberculosis in Russia and Peru, built a modern hospital in an AIDS-stricken district of Malawi, fought cholera in Haiti, treated HIV in Lesotho, and served more than 800,000 people in 41 health centers across Rwanda. 

Besides being one of the leading figures in public health, Farmer is also an author. He’s written extensively on health and human rights as well as the role social inequalities play in global health outcomes. His recent book, Reimagining Global Health, coedited with three colleagues, looks at current public health issues from a historical perspective and also calls for more people to join the fight for health care equality. 

Fighting the Ebola Epidemic

The most pressing issue Farmer and his team are confronting today is the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. As the crisis persists there, Partners In Health has been on the frontlines, training local health care providers, conducting research, and setting up on-site clinical care to help control the outbreak. Trying to contain the disease has been one of PIH’s greatest challenges. “Modern medicine has never collided with Ebola before,” says Farmer. “We couldn’t not be involved; this is the biggest public health crisis of our time.” 

PIH is working alongside two Africa-based organizations, Last Mile Health in Liberia and Wellbody Alliance in Sierra Leone, to assist with treatment in rural areas. The group has put together a large team—about 1,000 people total—to assist on the ground in both rural and urban areas, training health workers and taking care of sick patients. “We’ve even hired around 200 Ebola survivors to work with us,” adds Farmer, “so many of our colleagues gone through the awful experience themselves.” 

Because the world's health problems extend beyond Ebola, PIH workers are also busy maintaining a variety of international programs to combat other serious threats in poorer countries. That includes maintaining the fight against HIV/AIDS, cholera, cancer, and tuberculosis. "Our focus is first on integrating prevention, treatment and care," he says. "I knew I would spend my life on this. We came to medicine to do this."