Global Health Champion Paul Farmer Dies At 62

Dr Paul Farmer was known for his efforts in providing health care for low-income countries.

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 22 – American physician Dr Paul Farmer, who is renowned for providing health care for millions of impoverished people globally, has died at age 62.

Dr Farmer died in his sleep while in Rwanda, where he had been teaching over the past few weeks at a university that he co-founded with the country’s former health minister Dr Agnes Binagwaho, according to news reports.

His unexpected passing was confirmed via Twitter by the University of Global Health Equity and Partners In Health (PIH), a global nonprofit he helped establish in 1987 whose mission is to bring modern medical care to those in need around the world.

“Paul Farmer’s loss is devastating, but his vision for the world will live on through Partners in Health,” said PIH chief executive Sheila Davis, in a statement. “Paul taught all those around him the power of accompaniment, love for one another, and solidarity.”

He is survived by his Haitian wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer, and their three children. 

Dr Farmer was known for his efforts to provide health care for low-income countries. In 1987, he co-founded Partners In Health in Haiti with the aim of providing high-quality care to patients from poor backgrounds and those living far from health care facilities.

Partners In Health has since expanded to 11 countries across Africa and Latin America, as well as to Russia and the Navajo Nation in the United States.

Born in Massachusetts, the United States, Dr Farmer graduated from Duke University in 1982 and went on to Harvard University, where he earned an MD, as well as a PhD in anthropology.

He was also Kolokotrones University Professor and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

As an anthropologist, Dr Farmer had a strong understanding of how health and poverty are interconnected. 

“You have to look at what’s happening to the patient in front of you and think about ways to address social disparities. If there’s food insecurity, then you provide food when you provide care. Or if patients drop out of treatment, you provide transportation to the clinic, or you send community health workers to the patient,” he told NPR in a 2020 interview.

In 2020, Dr Farmer won the million-dollar Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture for his impactful work at the intersection of public health and human rights.

The award is given annually to individuals whose ideas have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world.

He was also the recipient of Rwanda’s National Order of Outstanding Friendship in 2019, given to those who have performed outstanding acts in promoting cooperation between Rwanda and other countries.

As news of Dr Farmer’s death spread, messages of condolences and remembrances began rolling in from world leaders, renowned academics, and celebrities.

Harvard Medical School (HMS) Dean Dr George Q. Daley wrote in an email to school affiliates on Monday that Dr Farmer “represented the heart and soul” of HMS.

“A compassionate physician and infectious disease specialist, a brilliant and influential medical anthropologist, and among the greatest humanitarians of our time — perhaps all time — Paul dedicated his life to improving human health and advocating for health equity and social justice on a global scale,” Dr Daley wrote.

Duke University president Vincent Price, in a statement, said Dr Farmer will rightfully be remembered for his pathbreaking work in global health and his selfless commitment to serving some of the most vulnerable populations in the world. 

“His work saved countless lives; it also changed a great many lives for the better – the students he encouraged, the physicians he mentored, the friendships he forged the world over, and the family he loved.”

In a joint statement, former US President Bill Clinton, his wife ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and their daughter Chelsea Clinton wrote, “Paul was one of the most extraordinary people we have ever known.”

“Paul Farmer changed the way health care is delivered in the most impoverished places on Earth. He saw every day as a new opportunity to teach, learn, give, and serve — and it was impossible to spend any time with him and not feel the same.”

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