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Peru’s Public Health Czar
Ernesto Bustamante ’78 takes the long view.
When Ernesto Bustamante ’78 took the helm as chief of the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Peru last July, his first order of business was to prepare the nation for the possible arrival of Ebola virus disease. “Fortunately it didn’t show up in South America, but we are ready,” Bustamante says.
Founded 120 years ago to manufacture an anti-smallpox vaccine, the NIH in Peru today focuses on controlling infectious disease and improving nutritional and occupational health. The institute operates like a blend of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bustamante explains, conducting research and prevention activities but not providing funding.
While Peru is considered a middle-income country now, it remains host to conditions more likely to occur in the developing world, Bustamante says. The multiethnic nation spans urban, coastal, mountain and jungle regions, so a variety of diseases are represented within its borders. One of Bustamante’s first priorities is vaccine production, starting with yellow fever—the “forgotten disease,” he calls it—and influenza, for health security reasons. In the long run, he sees the institute leading research on vaccines for mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya.
The Peruvian NIH’s activities are carried out by six specialized centers: public health, food and nutrition, biologicals, occupational medicine and environmental health, quality control, and interculturality (to protect communities living in logging, rubber and mining areas from exploitation).
Bustamante credits the three years he spent working in The Johns Hopkins Hospital’s clinical lab during medical school with showing him the value of health research and sparking his passion for public health. Following medical school, he spent 10 years on the faculty of the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Lima before entering the private sector to found a clinical diagnostic lab and a company that manufactured kits for clinical diagnostics. Among other contributions, he identified the enzyme responsible for the processes that occur in cancerous tumor cells, a finding that later served as the basis for development of positron emission tomography to diagnose and monitor tumors.
“Fortunately it didn’t show up in South America, but we are ready.”