Johannes Sommerfeld takes social science approaches to Kobe Centre

TDR news item
4 April 2017

Johannes Sommerfeld
Johannes Sommerfeld

After 16 years at TDR, scientist and research manager Johannes Sommerfeld has moved to what he calls “another gem in the WHO system,” the WHO Kobe Centre for Health Development in Japan. An interview with Sommerfeld highlights important issues he has worked on while at TDR, and how he is bringing his experience to the issues of healthy ageing, urban health and disaster response.

A commitment to community-led, people-centered research

In 2000, after ten years of working in academia (Harvard University and University of Heidelberg, Medical School), Sommerfeld was recruited to TDR to manage its then new Steering Committee for Social, Economic and Behavioural Research. The committee was chaired by Paul Farmer, a global champion for social justice and health.

“At that time, TDR was one of the few international programmes committed to integrating social research with basic research for public health,” he said. Situating the new Committee for Social, Economic and Behavioural Research in TDR’s basic and strategic research unit, alongside pathogenesis and applied genomics and molecular entomology, “was a courageous and ambitious move”.

Workshop in India while coordinating multi-country dengue research in Asia
Workshop in India while coordinating multi-country dengue research in Asia

Social research has many success stories in the field of infectious diseases of poverty, many developed in TDR. For example, social research helped identify why white insecticide-treated bednets were rejected by those who could benefit from them. Researchers revealed that community members thought the nets looked like cloths to wrap those who had died, so they were afraid to use them. By dyeing the nets bright colours, they became widely accepted and now are a key component of malaria control throughout low-income countries.

Sommerfeld managed a series of publications highlighting social research issues, including work on support groups for Haitian women with lymphatic filariasis; gender issues in tuberculosis; ethical, legal and social issues of genetically modified mosquitoes; and human rights and globalization.

Social research is now a key component of all research done at TDR and many other organizations. The social, environmental and economic determinants of health have been identified as critically important to the United Nations agenda on Sustainable Development Goals, and for attaining universal health coverage.

A community-led approach

One of TDR’s great successes was research into how communities could develop and lead public health campaigns. Sommerfeld was part of the flagship research programme on community-directed interventions against health problems in Africa, in close cooperation with the African Programme on Onchocerciasis Control, APOC, a public-private initiative to combat what is called river blindness. This programme documented how communities could effectively distribute and manage an annual treatment of ivermectin, which is now the main programme for over 60 million Africans.

A community of practice meeting on eco-social approaches
A community of practice meeting on eco-social approaches

“This was a great privilege, and what I learned during these years has been applied many times in other areas,” he said. This knowledge was essential during the conceptualization of a new unit at TDR on vectors, environment and society. Sommerfeld helped to develop new approaches to vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue.

One of the unit’s early projects that Sommerfeld managed developed and tested new community-based approaches in 7 Latin American countries. The researchers studied dengue vector transmission in urban and adjoining areas and Chagas transmission in rural settings, and identified new solutions.

More recently, Sommerfeld helped develop the Social Innovation for Health Initiative (SIHI). “This field of inquiry and practice is about innovative solutions to people-centred health care and that is one of my favorite areas of work,” he said. SIHI has showcased 23 innovations, has attracted numerous partners, and is now expanding to conduct research on what works and what does not.

The project that puts a smile on Sommerfeld’s face is the project he oversaw to enhance the careers of women scientists in Africa. Aiming to overcome the dearth of women scientists in infectious diseases on that continent, the effort supported pilot projects to develop women health leaders in their communities, and integrate a gender perspective into disease control approaches and implementation research.

Moving from infectious diseases to ageing and cities

Now settled in Kobe, Japan, Sommerfeld is immersing himself in Japanese society and culture. “Japan is a wonderful host country and at the WHO Centre for Health Development, we have a great team,” he said.

Sommerfeld with former WHO Director General Dr Halfdan Mahler
Sommerfeld with former WHO Director General Dr Halfdan Mahler

His research focus will shift to align with the Kobe Center’s objectives to improve health outcomes for ageing people, and in cities and disasters, with universal health coverage at the center of the agenda.

“The objectives, while different from TDR’s, continue to integrate public health with social science research to strengthen health systems and improve the quality of life for vulnerable people worldwide,” he added.

About the Kobe Centre

The Kobe Centre was established by WHO more than 20 years ago to conduct research on the consequences of social, economic and environmental change and their implications for health policies. Its vision is to foster innovations to achieve sustainable universal health coverage, in particular for ageing populations.

Top health areas for the Kobe Centre include: how to mitigate health inequities in urban settings; the development of evidenced-based policy options and actions to improve health in cities and communities; and, “whole of society” strategies to prevent and treat non-communicable diseases locally and nationally.

Staying in touch

Although now nearly 10 000 kilometres away from the TDR headquarters, Sommerfeld’s email address remains the same. He sends his best regards to colleagues and partners worldwide and looks forward to keeping in touch while growing his network in the social research field that he has helped develop.

For more information, please contact Johannes Sommerfeld