Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta receives prestigious Gairdner Foundation award for work in maternal-child health
Approaching three decades of international research and health-care work, The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) Centre for Global Child Health’s Co-Director Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta remains world-renowned for his research in and public policy impact on global maternal, newborn and child health. Today, Bhutta was awarded the prestigious John Dirks Canada Gairdner Global Health Award in recognition of his research contributions to improving the well-being of those facing health inequities worldwide.
“Dr. Bhutta’s impact in the global health field is outstanding, and this award is a testament to his drive, innovation and leadership in improving newborn health and survival,” says Dr. Stanley Zlotkin, Chief of SickKids Centre for Global Child Health.
Awarded by the Gairdner Foundation, the John Dirks Canada Gairdner Global Health Award recognizes outstanding researchers who apply scientific approaches to support successful implementation, evaluation and policy interventions in a global health landscape. Bhutta was recognized for his research on and development of evidence-based interventions to improve maternal-child health among marginalized populations worldwide. His work focuses on outcomes for the ‘first thousand days’ of life, a concept that bridges maternal health, childbirth and the first two years of a child’s life.
“The ‘first thousand days’ refers to the period of pregnancy and the first two years of life,” explains Bhutta. “This is where the bulk of prenatal and childhood mortality lies. It’s where the bulk of undernutrition, stunting and wasting are. It’s also where the most preventative potential is, whether through minimizing risk factors or minimizing conditions that are preventable through vaccines or better health care.”
Bhutta’s work on the ‘first thousand days’ of life began in the early 2000s and continues today with the goal of laying a foundation to improve maternal-child health worldwide.
A journey of exploration in global health
Bhutta began his medical career in 1978 working in obstetrics and gynecology in Pakistan before venturing into paediatrics with a specific interest in neonatology. It was during this time working as a surgeon and paediatrician that Bhutta’s interest in global health began to grow.
“Much of my early work on newborn survival was spent in the hospital, but I realized early on that in a world where poverty and inequities are rampant, this was no way to reach people in remote or rural populations, or populations in the middle of conflict,” says Bhutta.
A witness to conflict in the region of northwestern Pakistan where he grew up, he says it was clear to him that maternal-child health was key to improving the health of communities worldwide.
Continuing his career at The Aga Khan University (AKU) in Pakistan, Bhutta worked to develop programs in low- and middle-income countries, focusing on exploring the feasibility and scalability of health programs in spaces with limited resources. Since global health work was scarce, Bhutta recalls this period of his career as a “journey of exploration.”
By 2005, Bhutta began his formative work on the ‘first thousand days’ of life, with the goal of saving newborn lives through evidence-based strategies and interventions. Through collaboration with centres in Canada, Pakistan and the United Kingdom, Bhutta conducted large-scale cluster randomized trials to gather data that would help shape and improve interventions for community-based maternal and newborn care, nutrition and early childhood development in global communities. Bhutta and his team then turned their focus to influencing global policy to advance their advocacy efforts.
“There was no luxury of time,” says Bhutta, noting that when his work began, 10 million children around the world were dying every year from preventable conditions.
Several international guidelines for the treatment of persistent diarrhea and malnutrition, including those from the World Health Organization, have resulted from Bhutta’s work. His team also prioritized community-based interventions in Pakistan, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
A legacy built on partnerships and collaboration
Now, Bhutta is the Robert Harding Chair in Global Child Health, Co-Director of SickKids Centre for Global Child Health and a Senior Scientist in the Child Health Evaluative Sciences program at SickKids. He is also a Professor in the Departments of Paediatrics and Nutritional Sciences in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, and a Founding Director of the Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health and Institute for Global Health and Development at AKU.
“Dr. Bhutta’s commitment to the advancement of child and maternal health and nutrition is unparalleled. This award highlights not only his significant contributions to global health research but the profound impact that his evidence-based research approach has had on the health outcomes of children and families around the world,” says Dr. Stephen Scherer, Chief of Research at SickKids. “On behalf of the entire SickKids and Canadian research community, I congratulate Dr. Bhutta on this tremendous recognition.”
Dr. Carl Amrhein, Provost and Vice President, Academic at AKU notes: “Recognition by the Gairdner Foundation tells the world that AKU’s very own Dr. Bhutta has made life better for thousands of people in the countries where we seek to serve. We are enormously proud of all he has accomplished thus far, and all he will achieve in the years ahead.”
Working in global health, Bhutta identifies advocacy, knowledge synthesis, collaboration and strong partnerships as the cornerstones of his success.
“Dr. Bhutta’s passion towards his work on maternal and child health is contagious,” says Dr. Aamer Imdad, a paediatric gastroenterologist and assistant professor at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, New York. Imdad was mentored by Bhutta while at AKU and has now worked with him for over 12 years, including on the ‘first thousand days’ of life research. “He works hard, and his passion gets transferred to his team members.”
Enhancing Global Child Health at SickKids
Bhutta came to SickKids on a sabbatical almost a decade ago to work on The Integrated Global Action Plan for Pneumonia and Diarrhoea (GAPPD). He helped to build upon SickKids’ global health initiatives and programs and in 2013, he began work with the SickKids Centre for Global Child Health alongside Zlotkin. The Centre works to tackle some of the hardest maternal-child health challenges in countries around the world.
As Bhutta marks the beginning of 10 years as co-director of the Centre, he says he looks forward to continuing his work with SickKids and other international partners to improve the health and well-being of children everywhere.
“This is an award for my team and an appreciation of the work that my group has done,” says Bhutta. “An award for anybody in global health is an award for the partnerships necessary to bring about change.”
Learn more about the John Dirks Canada Gairdner Global Health Award.