By Rachael Davies
“I see inequality as a universal human problem”, says Ibrahim Abubakar, Dean of the Faculty of Population Health Sciences at University College London (UCL), UK, where he oversees ten institutes and schools. Whether in his tuberculosis (TB) research in London with migrants, or work on Lassa fever in rural Sierra Leone, he is committed to addressing inequalities and improving population health. Long-time colleague Professor Madhukar Pai, Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology and Global Health at McGill University, Canada, describes him as “a global health diplomat” and says, “as someone who was raised and trained in Nigeria, Ibrahim has a deep understanding of the ground realities and inequities that are inherent in global health. It makes him credible and authentic, and allows him to act as a bridge-builder and an ally, and to work to change the system from within.”
A relentless couple of years saw Abubakar help guide the COVID-19 response in the UK and Nigeria, as a scientific adviser to governments in both countries. “One thing that demonstrates what is wrong about humanity is that we have not been able to share a public good like a COVID-19 vaccine or the technology”, he says. But Abubakar adds, “We can only change this situation if the African leadership decide that the health of their people is really important…I have no doubt that the human capital and ability exists in multiple African states.” That outlook informed his work leading the Lancet Nigeria Commission. As he emphasises, “To harness Nigeria's full potential, access to health for all must be front and centre of the national development agenda.” The Commission's bold recommendations earlier this year have already had impact, with President Buhari signing a law to fund health insurance coverage for millions of the poorest Nigerians.
The son of a civil servant in northern Nigeria, Abubakar's father died when he was 7 years old and he was raised with “a responsibility and a duty to give back”, he says. After graduating in medicine from Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria in 1992, he worked in clinical roles in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, where he treated patients in a meningitis epidemic. “Infected people were brought to hospital too late to be saved”, he recalls. “It was obvious that I needed skills that go beyond the individual patient, so I shifted my focus to public and population health.” After postgraduate study in public health in the UK at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Cambridge University, he did a PhD in epidemiology at the University of East Anglia and worked as a consultant in the NHS. In 2005, his career path changed when he led the TB Surveillance Unit at the UK Health Protection Agency. “I was really fortunate to have that platform to pull together a national strategy on TB control…and rates of TB declined in the UK”, he says. Abubakar also collaborated with researchers and gained recognition for global and national studies that resulted in a programme of latent TB testing. Early TB detection in high-risk populations was another focus, and he led the EU-funded E-DETECT TB project. “We worked with colleagues in Italy to set up TB screening and support programmes for migrants arriving on the south coast, and helped establish a European database of active TB which now has millions of records”, he says. And until 2019, he chaired WHO's Strategic and Technical Advisory Group for TB.
Abubakar joined UCL as Director of the Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Senior Investigator at the MRC Clinical Trials Unit in 2012. As Chikwe Ihekweazu, Assistant Director General at WHO leading the Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence and a long-time collaborator, says: “Ibrahim's research interests always align with what he considers important, from TB to HIV, emerging infections and to health in underserved populations”. In 2016, Abubakar became Director at the UCL Institute for Global Health, where he merged the departments of global health with infection and population health and created new centres in climate change, non-communicable diseases and mental health, and migration. “These centres have flourished and have multiple grants working in multiple countries and are making a difference”, he says. Bernadette Kumar, from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, highlights another of Abubakar's achievements as Chair of the 2018 UCL–Lancet Commission on Migration Health: “a landmark undertaking that was no mean feat, a rather daring venture”, she says.
Today, as Dean of UCL's Faculty of Population Health Sciences, Abubakar is making concerted efforts to “bring together scientists from the different departments to address the big interdisciplinary challenges we all face—the climate crisis, inequalities, infection, cancer”. And he wants to support staff and enhance the training of the next generation of global health leaders. COVID-19 remains a research priority, with Abubakar leading the END-VOC project on emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern. Meanwhile, he continues to contribute to pandemic preparedness as a member of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), convened by WHO and the World Bank. “Sadly, we will have another pandemic in our lifetimes”, he says. “Through GPMB, I am committed to strengthening monitoring and accountability of global public health, the key to ensuring we mitigate future threats.” He is also planning an initiative with colleagues to address the myriad of problems facing the people of the Sahel in Africa. Abubakar, who lives with his wife and two children in London, thrives on his non-stop schedule and hopes that in all his projects he is making “a difference in global health in a substantial, tangible, and measurable way”