Legacy professional fellow in non-profit development Yassine Kalboussi, a native of Tunisia, spent a month at APHA to learn and take home public health expertise. Photo by Legacy International

Legacy International professional fellow in non-profit development Yassine Kalboussi, a native of Tunisia, spent a month at APHA headquarters to both learn about the U.S. public health system and how to advocate for bolstered public health services in his home nation. Kalboussi was selected into the U.S. Department of State’s Professional Fellows Program  for Nonprofit Development for North Africa, and specifically requested fellowship placement at APHA in hopes of training a public health workforce in Tunisia.

Public Health Newswire talked to Kalboussi about his time with APHA, the importance of social media in Tunisia, a non-governmental organization he has helped form and his ambition to create a robust public health system so that “our new baby will grow into public health academic careers.”

Q: You have a medical background. What sparked your interest in public health and what are you hoping to glean from your fellowship experience?

A: Why I’m doing public health: In medical school I discovered that public action, policies, NGOs and government should care about sick people like doctors do in hospitals — but also to [healthy] people who are not sick yet. We should act on social determinants of health, act on prevention, act on housing policies, transportation and food. Thinking about this upstream approach  defined my academic choices.

So I chose to do my M.D. thesis in a public health department. It’s about social determinants of type 2 diabetes in Tunisia so we could figure out how income, education and employment would affect prevalence, quality of treatment and access to health services with people affected with type-2 diabetes in Tunisia.

“The power of APHA and its 25,000 members gives public health a voice.” — Yassine Kalboussi

Then I had this chance with Legacy International to be put in an NGO in the U.S. for one month. So I did my Google research about the public health landscape and found that one big difference between us and the U.S. is that we have an APHA here, which not only works on research and advocacy but also in terms of training their members and giving them the tools to advocate for their members. That’s big. The power of APHA and its 25,000 members gives public health a voice, [especially] with central government here in D.C. So here I got the chance to meet people with different backgrounds, starting with Dr. Regina [Davis], who taught me about health equity issues in the U.S. and how to tackle health disparities. Also I have met Dr. [Georges] Benjamin, who explained the background and history of health equity and explained all the efforts done in public health here in the U.S. I was a bit lucky because when I was here, the [APHA Executive] Board was having its meeting and I got the chance to meet Ayman El-Mohandes, who is the dean of public health at City University of New York and from Egypt.

I’ve met many other people who have talked about all kinds of things like project management training, advocacy and communication in public health. So I’ve got little and big steps in public health work from being here at APHA.

Q: In a presentation you gave to APHA staff you mentioned the importance of social media in Tunisia. Does public health have an online voice in your country?

A: Social media is so developed in Tunisia. I would say 90 percent of the population is on Facebook and we follow news there. If you want to raise awareness about something Facebook is the first thing to do.

In 2011 [our nation had a] revolution where all the uprisings, the strikes, were all organized on Facebook. People shared videos of strikes and uprisings and other people do the same. People called it the “Revolution of Facebook.”

So from a public health perspective I thought to start a Facebook page. It’s called Anonymous Doctor. It has about 17,000 likes. It includes some jokes — but also a history of hospitals in our country, public health issues and some anti-tobacco campaigns. It’s written in the Tunisian dialect.

I’m a citizen and I’m anonymous so I don’t post with my name and that gives me much more space for freedom. I can talk about corruption in hospitals and lack of transparency. [People] know me and my colleagues are behind the laptops but I can talk about issues like lack of quality training for medical students, the lack of transparency on some health national exams and the lack of transparency in medicines because in Tunisia we’re not a producer of medicines, especially for chronic diseases.

We also use the page for friendly topics like breast cancer awareness, we share some infographics about the public health issues in Tunisia and we’re producing videos to speak about obesity, physical ability and junk food.

Q: How do you hope to revolutionize public health in Tunisia?

A: My take-home message is that we have a group of nine to 10 people in Tunisia — junior doctors, one graphic designer, one IT manager — and we started a small NGO called “Public Health Tunisia.” First of all, we’re helping with capacity building and we will have our first training in September; it’s about health in all policies.

We have two major challenges. First, we want to have people with backgrounds other than in medical studies: people from education, media urban studies. Then the second challenge is how to follow up with this training. So we will get a series of training with WHO expert or other experts.

Our mission is to advocate for better public health training in Tunisia. We do not have a public health school in Tunisia or any public health training. And I think this motivated group could develop the idea and mission and vision for the development of our own professional and academic careers. The name is big; we will start with small projects and capacity building, and hopefully going through our public health lives our new baby will grow up with public health academic careers.