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An advocate for health beyond borders

Elisha A. Dunn-Georgiou ’06 has the widest professional portfolio imaginable: improving the health of everyone in the world. 

She’s not intimidated.  

As president and CEO of Global Health Council in Washington, D.C., Dunn-Georgiou coordinates the work of GHC’s over 100 member organizations, focusing attention and resources on critical global health issues in low- and middle-income countries. She took the job in the midst of the Covid pandemic, after 13 years as an executive with PAI, an advocacy agency for women’s reproductive health worldwide. 

Dunn-Georgiou brings to the task both her UB Law degree and a UB master’s degree in epidemiology, which she followed up with a two-year assignment in the Peace Corps as a maternal and child health volunteer in Morocco. While working in Buffalo for a program helping low-income women obtain cancer screenings, she had an epiphany. “It was rewarding work,” she says, “but the biggest changes in access to that program came from changes in policy or the allocation of resources at the state level. I realized that I really wanted to change how health equity works.

“I like to solve problems,” she says. “Whether it’s public health intervention, research, advocating for better resources, better policies, better systems, problem-solving is at the heart of it, and it ties in for me with solving health equity questions.” 

Health equity, of course, is far from a reality globally. Many low- and middle-income countries lack the resources to provide the quality health care necessary to improve health outcomes. And there’s a moral imperative to American leadership in this area, she says: “Health is a human right and health is a political choice. What we’re trying to do is create an enabling environment so people everywhere can access health services.”

But with many competing priorities for attention and resources, engaging and persuading decision makers is challenging. So, Dunn-Georgiou and her fellow advocates often point back to the connection to global security, showcasing how global health has implications at the national level in the United States.  For example, diseases know no boundaries so getting much-needed Covid vaccines into the arms of people everywhere helps protect Americans by forestalling dangerous mutations. Investing in global health can also pay dividends in research and manufacturing here at home.  

Annually, GHC compiles a multi-page prospectus for the federal Office of Management and Budget, making the case for specific funding levels for a roster of US global health initiatives. In recent years, that includes addressing the impact of the pandemic on other health areas. Health providers globally are forced to address Covid at the expense of the screenings and primary care that hold other maladies at bay in their populations. “It’s not like heart disease and diabetes have taken a breather,” she says. “We’ve seen a lot of backsliding, a lot of robbing Peter to pay Paul and not keeping up essential services like childhood immunizations.” 

As Covid has settled into a more endemic phase, Dunn-Georgiou is looking to broaden GHC’s membership to include more organizations based outside the United States, “really making sure we have the broadest, most inclusive group of stakeholders at the table,” including international nonprofits, private-sector companies, academia, and health-focused foundations. 

When asked why Americans need to be leaders in global health, Dunn-Georgiou responds, “Why isn’t it our responsibility? Everybody is human. It’s the same for someone who doesn’t have health access in South Africa or D.C. We all have the obligation to make other people’s lives better if we have the opportunity.”