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Beate Kampmann: "My challenge is to convey a can-do attitude in global health".

Beate Kampmann
Photo: Aleix Cabrera / ISGlobal

Interview with Beate Kampmann, scientific director of the Charité Centre for Global Health and an expert on childhood tuberculosis and immunisation during pregnancy.


It is her only day in Barcelona and it has started to pour. From ISGlobal's headquarters, we can see how a curtain of water blurs the building of the Faculty of Medicine where, a few hours ago, she gave the inaugural lecture of the postgraduate courses on global health coordinated by ISGlobal and the University of Barcelona (UB). The rain, long overdue in the city, is not what someone from Berlin would expect for a Friday afternoon, but she smiles: "Anyway, I was counting on working all day". Her schedule still hasn't given her a break.

Beate Kampmann is Scientific Director of the newly established Charite Centre for Global Health since January. An internationally renowned expert in child health, she has taught and conducted research at Imperial College, UK and, in recent years, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), where she is now Professor in Paediatric Infection & Immunity. She has also directed the Vaccine Centre at LSHTM, which develops new vaccines and evaluates their safety and efficacy, and has led vaccine research at the MRC Unit-The Gambia, where she continues to conduct research and supervise PhD students. In addition, as a vaccine expert, she has established the IMPRINT (IMmunising PRegnant women and INfants network) platform, of which ISGlobal is a member, to deliver safe and effective vaccines to pregnant women with the aim of reducing neonatal morbidity and mortality.


-You talked to the students today. Did you remember when you were a student?

-I grew up in Germany and global health was not an issue at that time. However, as a junior doctor and a medical student, I became very involved in the care of HIV patients because that was when HIV really burst onto the scene, in the eighties. It was clear to me that this was a global infectious disease with international implications. And that really raised my interest. Also, I have always been active in i political movements such as the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War and have always had a general interest in geo-politics. The global impact of what we do in our own countries, was always very, very obvious to me. Maybe that also comes with growing up in Germany at a time when the country had a lot of its own history to reflect upon.


Zimbabwe, a lasting impression

-Did you have a special attachment to Africa?

-I was in my mid-twenties when I first went to Africa. I worked in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe, and it made a lasting impression on me: the way you have to do things with very few resources, and how it takes a whole team of people to deal with the day-to-day challenges. Then, when I did my PhD on childhood tuberculosis, it was clear that I needed to spend more time in Africa because that's where the burden of disease was.

A can-do attitude

-Has Africa changed you?

-Of course. I was impressed by the kind of rescue and survival skills and how people can have a generally collaborative and cooperative approach with very little in their hands. I saw people working in very, very difficult circumstances, but with incredible enthusiasm and a philosophy of making things a little bit better today, without worrying too much about the next three months or so. That very positive vibrancy probably rubbed off on me a little bit. The most stimulating aspect of my career now is the challenge of giving a kind of can-do attitude to people who think everything is incredibly difficult. And to give a perspective to people who feel they have to fight for everything as individuals, at the Charité Centre for Global Health and in Germany. As a group, we can have more power and influence to tackle some problems.


Bringing new partners at the table

-Did you discuss these issues with ISGlobal?

-We reflected a bit on how our different institutions are set up to address the problems we all see. Many dynamics are changing and the dialogue needs to bring in partners who may not have been at the table before, especially from LMICs. We cannot solve global health problems for other people, we can only solve them with other people.

-What about women? What's their role in global health?

-I really believe that women have a slightly different perspective on the challenges and are perhaps a little more willing to think not just for themselves, their country, their institutions, but for the common good. Because if we cannot feed our families, no one else will. And we can think of the world as our global family. I'm part of the Women in Global Health (WGH) initiative. In fact, the Charité hosts the secretariat of the German section of WGH. There aren't enough women in global health leadership, and that means we have to think about the people we invite to our meetings. As Ruth Bader-Ginsburg said, if there's a decision to be made, there should be a woman at the table.


A proactive person

-Was it hard to be a woman in the research environment decades ago?

-Personally, I don't feel that there have been any barriers in my way, I think because there are a lot of women in paediatrics and also because I'm a fairly proactive person who doesn't take no for an answer. I kind of approach things with the assumption that I can do it and gender is not that much of an issue. I know a lot of female colleagues have felt barriers in their lives. I've always had the support of my family, but we're a small family.

Consensus and action point

-Is that a main trait of your personality, thinking you can do things?

-I've always felt confident, but hopefully never too confident! I think I am a person who is quite prepared to say if I don't know something and to ask for information or opinions. I don't like to make decisions alone, I like to seek consensus, but I also like to have an action point at the end so that people always feel that I've been very clear in my messages and that we've got things done.


Not calling all the shots

-Does being approachable have facilitated your work in Africa?

-I've always involved people in the decision-making process, so that they don't feel that I'm calling the shots, but that we're developing solutions together. That's why I had wonderful experiences with my colleagues in Africa. Now that I'm in Berlin, one of the hardest things is that I only get to see them a few times a year. On the other hand, if you're a woman and a white woman negotiating with senior officials in Africa, you can still be seen as less authoritative.

-Does decolonization and feminism have to do with taking the other into account?

-I think so, because people like to work with people who make them feel respected. That's a must: there's always someone who has a say, an opinion. Being in the paediatric field, we always work with groups, we never just work with the patient, but with the patient in the context of the family and the social situation. Maybe that's something I've brought to my research.


Working on vaccines is very rewarding

-Are you satisfied with your legacy?

-You know, the work in health is never finished. I'm becoming more and more convinced that you have to lay a foundation for things to continue, because it's not going to be a question of here's the problem, you solve it, you can take off and move on. The world is just too complex right now. And once you've built and enabled people to maybe carry on, it's a bit like taking care of a family or a garden: you plant some seeds, you never quite know what's going to happen with each of those plants, but you've taken care of them as best you can and then maybe they turn into beautiful flowers or forests.

-You can look at science like this too.

-Yes. Scientific problems can be very complex. But working on vaccines is very rewarding. When there was no vaccine for meningococcal disease, we saw thousands of children dying, and now we don't. That gives you hope.