Public health expert and former head of the Pan Amercian Health Organization (PAHO), Dominican, Dr. Carissa Etienne, has died. She passed away in the United States on Friday due to a heart attack, Dominica News Online has learnt. A giant in health care, Dr. Etienne was known internationally and her death has sent shock waves across Dominica.
Health minister, Cassani Laville, told state-owned DBS Radio on Friday morning that her passing was “profoundly sad.”
“It is sad, profoundly sad to receive the news this morning, very early, the passing of Dr, Carissa Etienne,” he said.
“We have certainly lost a champion.”
Family Friend, Ackroyd Birmingham, said on Friday morning that although Dr. Etienne had back surgery earlier this year when he saw her on Thursday evening, she had “a glow.”
“Yesterday she went to the doctor and the doctor gave her a good bill of health and we passed there last night and she had a glow,” he said on local radio station, Q95.
“Imagine she told my wife that she was back and comfortable. She was happy, her face was looking great and we even planned a little get-together for her for this coming Saturday, my wife had planned it.”
According to Birmingham in the early hours of Friday, she went to the bathroom, accompanied by her husband and in washing her hands, she started to fall but was assisted by her spouse.
“She has a sister, who is a nurse from England, who was there with her and the sister gave her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, called the ambulance and they took her,” he stated.
“At that time we know it wasn’t that good. They took her to the hospital and about an hour afterward, she passed.”
Birmingham, who said he had known Dr Eitiennes since she was 12 and who broke down during his interview with Q95, said her death is a shock to her family and friends, especially to him and his wife since they saw Dr. Etienne on Thursday night.
“She was really feeling good last night,” he remarked.
Dr. Carissa F. Etienne was 71 at the time of her passing. She recently retired after 10 years at the helm of PAHO and was declared Director-Emeritus on September 30, 2022. From 2008-2012, she served as Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Services at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. Before that, she served as Assistant Director of PAHO from 2003-2008, where she led five technical areas: Health Systems and Services; Technology, Health Care and Research; Health Surveillance and Disease Management; Family and Community Health; and Sustainable Development and Environmental Health.
She received her medical degree [Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery – MBBS] from the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, and her Master of Science Degree [MSc] in Community Health in developing countries from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London.
She began her career here in Dominica as a medical doctor at the then Princess Margaret Hospital (now the Dominica China Friendship Hospital), eventually becoming Chief Medical Officer. She also served in many high-level posts including including Coordinator of the National AIDS Program, Disaster Coordinator for the Ministry of Health, Chair of the National Advisory Council for HIV/AIDS, and Director of Primary Health Care Services.
Under her leadership, PAHO supported Member States in coping with major epidemics, including Zika, chikungunya, and yellow fever, as well as disasters ranging from hurricanes and catastrophic flooding to earthquakes and droughts. Dr. Etienne was always a champion of quality health service for everyone. In her acceptance speech when she was elected for the second time as head of PAHO in 2017, she cited her “commitment to deliver to all of our peoples, from all walks of society, a long and productive life, with quality care into our senior years; access to quality health services without fear of impoverishment; access to medicines and vaccines that we can afford, including effective antibiotics; freedom from preventable diseases, with reduced exposure to disease vectors.”
According to PAHO, she championed the achievement of Universal Health as an overarching goal for the Americas, based on the primary health care approach.
“This included developing strategies, policies, and plans to expand access to comprehensive care, particularly for vulnerable populations and in underserved and rural areas, strengthening governance and stewardship in health, improved financing for health, and intersectoral action to address the social determinants of health,” the organization said. The second half of her tenure as the head of PAHO was defined by the COVID-19 pandemic but the organization said her “leadership was crucial in enabling the region to prepare for and mitigate the worst effects of the pandemic.”
“Under her leadership, PAHO’s Revolving Fund for Access to Vaccines delivered over 151 million COVID-19 vaccines, contributing to the swift roll-out of this life-saving technology in the region,” it said.
Dr. Etienne spoke of her humble beginnings at the official unveiling of her portrait at the Embassy of Sweden in Washington D.C. in January, 2023.
“From a little girl in Massacre, Dominica, walking bare foot, going to school, being as every other child was. If that child can rise to become Director of PAHO, then there is hope for every child that walks the streets of the Americas. And if we keep that in our minds, we will do whatever it takes to ensure that child really develops,” she said.
Despite his pain, family friend Birmingham said he was happy that he was around Dr. Etienne during her final moment when she was taken to the hospital early Friday morning.
“You cannot want for anything more than that,” he said.
“I will forever remember that. My wife and I will surely remember …”