A life at the apex of medicine

THE professional funeral service of the Zambia Medical Association at the University of Zambia Medical School, Ridgeway Campus, on Monday. PICTURE: MACKSON WASAMUNU


DOCTOR Joseph Mwenya Kasonde leaves behind a huge legacy both nationally and internationally.

Tributes have been pouring in for Dr Kasonde, who died on Friday last week and was buried yesterday in Lusaka.
“I do know that the medical profession has lost a diligent physician, and not only that, I think the whole country has lost someone who was dedicated to serving others,” Vice-President Inonge Wina said.
Dr Kasonde, who was not a politician through and through, served as Minister of Health from 2011 to 2016 when he was nominated as member of Parliament.
His successor as Minister of Health knows the legacy he leaves behind.
Dr Chitalu Chilufya says Dr Kasonde played a crucial role in the modernisation of the health sector in the country.
“He was a witty, humble and diligent civil servant who was dedicated to improving the welfare of patients,” Dr Chitalu Chilufya said at the professional funeral service for Dr Kasonde organised by the Zambia Medical Association (ZMA) at the University of Zambia Medical School, Ridgeway Campus on Monday.
“He was an illustrious and luminary doctor of national and international repute who coined the Patriotic Front manifesto that focused on promotion of a primary healthcare system. His legacy of humility, hard work and promotion of community-based healthcare interventions will continue to live on.
“The achievements we see in the health sector were drafted by Dr Kasonde, he was passionate… He was a policy formulator who modelled all of us.”
ZMA president Abidan Chansa said Dr Kasonde, whom the association awarded with a lifetime achievement award, will be missed for having introduced the three C’s – cleanliness, competence and care.
“Every medical practitioner should have these three attributes,” Dr Chansa said. “Dr Kasonde was a great statesman who religiously implemented Government’s health policies. The profession has been robbed of a gallant soldier and father of the medical profession.”
One of the institutions that Dr Kasonde was associated with is the Lusaka Apex University, where he was the first chairperson.
Professor Tackson Lambert, who is Lusaka Apex University chairperson, knows what they have lost.
As the first Apex University chairperson, he wanted the institution to complement government’s quest to address the healthcare human resource shortages in the country.
Dr Kasonde was among the eight founders of Apex University and chaired it from 2008 to 2011. He was later recruited as executive director for research this year.
“He was a mentor,” Professor Lambert said. “We hope his children, some of whom are doctors abroad, will in future come back to Zambia and continue their father’s dream, which he started at Lusaka Apex University.”
Ministry of Home Affairs permanent secretary Elwyn Chomba describes Dr Kasonde as a witty, loving, smiley and gentle administrator who contributed greatly to the medical profession.
He diligently served the nation and the continent when he served at the World Health Organisation (WHO), where he was responsible for Research Capacity Strengthening in Developing Countries in the Special Programme for Research and Research Training in Human Reproduction from 1985 to 1998.
His death has indeed been echoed outside the country.
“We woke up this morning [Saturday] in the UK to the very sad news that Dr Kasonde had passed away. Our thoughts are with his family and many friends. He was a very great man. I’ve been reflecting this morning on our meetings with him over the years and they are making me smile with great affection even at this sad time,” said Simon Berry, founder and chief executive officer of ColaLife, an independent UK charity that works to reach as many children as possible in developing countries with medicine.
“We were very fortunate that his time in office coincided with our work in Zambia, which started in the late 2011. He was an enthusiastic supporter of our work right from our first meeting. I well recall how excited we were when his office confirmed our first meeting. Jane [Berry, ColaLife business development director] and I knew we wouldn’t have much of his time, but we were well prepared with samples and notes, and as soon as we got in, we started pitching at 90 miles an hour. ‘Slow down, slow down,’ he said, smiling. ‘You know, I’m not very clever.’ Nothing could have been further from the truth!
“In August 2012, he agreed to contribute to the ColaLife documentary. He was the guest of honour at the presentation of our Healthcare Innovation Award. His warmth, energy and enthusiasm is clear: His last official engagement with us was when he pulled the crowds at the launch of Kit Yamoyo [a life-saving diarrhoea treatment kit that has achieved approval for general sale in Zambia, through Zambia Medical Regulatory Authority and the Ministry of Health, and has won many health awards] in Shoprite kindly hosted by the British High Commission.
“He stayed on long into the evening explaining our work to young journalists. Dr Kasonde leaves a huge legacy, nationally and internationally, and a small part of that is the fact that Kit Yamoyo, a locally produced diarrhoea treatment, is now available nationwide in Zambia in supermarkets and across the country in over 2,000 small community shops as well as public health clinics in 14 districts. He was with us throughout our journey.”
Dr Kasonde graduated MB, ChB [Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery] at Aberdeen University, Scotland, in 1966. He served as Medical Officer in the Zambian Ministry of Health from 1966 to 1970, including personal attendance on the then President Kenneth Kaunda during travels.
He went to Oxford from 1970 to 1975 during which period he specialised in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, becoming a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (MRCOG). He was appointed research fellow in 1984 by the Oxford University. He carried out original research on Blood Coagulation and Fibrinolysis in relation to contraceptive technology use, and was awarded the higher degree of Doctor of Medicine with Commendation by Almer Mater Aberdeen University.
He returned to Zambia and served as senior lecturer and head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, at the University Teaching Hospital (UNZA), from 1976 to 1977. He was invited to be director of Medical Services in 1977, subsequently combining this with the position of Permanent Secretary from 1979. During this time, he also served as personal physician to President Kaunda, and was a board member of the executive board of the World Health Organisation. He proceeded to Geneva in 1985 to work as a scientist in charge of capacity building for research in reproductive health in developing countries. He retired at the end of 1998 to return to Zambia. He co-founded the Zambia Forum for Health Research in 2005 as executive director and Lusaka Apex Medical University in 2008 as chairman and chief executive officer. He also co-founded the African Network for Research and Training in Reproductive Health (REPRONET-Africa) in 2005, where he served as chairman.
During his time as Minister of Health, he sat down with Claire Ward, who was blogging from Zambia, where she was filming The Cola Road, a documentary that follows the launch of the first aid programme that aims to use Coca-Cola’s distribution network to deliver medicines to the remotest corners of the developing world.
Titled ‘An African Health Minister’s Dilemmas’, the article that Claire produced gave an insight into Dr Kasonde’s work as minister.
Claire, a former associate editor at Maclean’s who was pursuing a Master’s in News and Documentary at New York University, wanted to know whether as minister, Dr Kasonde goes out to visit rural health centres and meet families.
“I have been out many times, in fact, I’m more times out than in. Apart from that, I was myself, as a child, bred in a rural village, so it’s not new to me,” Dr Kasonde said.
“But I have to keep acquainting myself with the current version of living in a rural area, so I have been out in many places across the country.
“(…) I think in many countries you find people drifting to the urban areas because of what is there. But I think there is also a feeling now that you can do something at home in your village, if you wish to stay in your village. I’m finding that an encouraging message.”
Claire also wanted to know what was on the horizon for Zambia in terms of public health.
“I think you have to look at it from the point of view of our phase in development. We were at a previous phase – when we had 125 health centres in the country – where the critical issue was just to create buildings to operate in,” Dr Kasonde said.
“Then the critical issue of when we didn’t have university graduates at all, we had to think of creating universities and training university graduates. We were in the phase of quantity. I like to believe we are now in the phase of quality (…) so, our principles at this stage in our development are very clear: One, universal access to whatever services we are providing; two, improvement in the quality. (…) After that there will be other phases.”
Certainly, it is another phase for the country without Dr Kasonde, who died at the age of 79 leaving behind a wife and five children.
A State funeral was accorded to him yesterday in appreciation of his contribution to the country.

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