Dr. Felicia Knaul

By:Heather Grady Issue: Biennial of the Americas 2010 Section:The Americas Roundtables

From Adversity, Inspirational Change

Felicia Knaul

Cancer survivor, women’s advocate, voice of the poor, researcher and Director of the Harvard Global Equity Initiative, Felicia Knaul is on a mission to change the face of chronic disease and healthcare for the poor and impoverished in Latin America. A Canadian citizen who lives half of the year in Boston and half of the year in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Dr. Knaul provided a broad, personal perspective to issues of chronic disease, poverty and intergovernmental cooperation. She brought a deep understanding of the long term economic impact of not addressing problems of healthcare. Saying that chronic health is a personal issue for Dr. Knaul is an understatement. Her husband, Julio Frenk, is the former national health minister of Mexico, current head of Harvard’s School of Public Health and Felicia’s partner through her bout with cancer. Her own career accolades include government, academic and non-profit positions conducting research and advising on health policies and health systems throughout the Americas. Using her own story as a breast cancer survivor to guide and inspire, Dr. Knaul has worked tirelessly to change perceptions of cancer and other chronic diseases in developing countries. When she was diagnosed in 2006, Knaul underwent multiple surgeries and started a nationwide early detection project for breast cancer in Mexico.

As she sees it, the biggest challenges to improved healthcare lay in altering perceptions of chronic disease at both individual and state levels. Women need to be empowered to seek preventative services for themselves and their families. They need to preconceive breast cancer not as a cultural stigma that leads to isolation, but as a disease that can be treated, more easily if detected early. Women need to be a source of strength and advocacy for preventative healthcare in developing countries. At the state level, cancer needs to be understood as a disease of the poor. Policies should focus on improving health systems overall and bringing first and second level care to rural populations.

Dr. Knaul emphasizes the profound role of education and awareness, supported by research and data, in decreasing fear in the area of healthcare.

How do you empower women in developing countries to participate in their own healthcare?

Empowerment comes from the belief that all people have the knowledge and the tools to act. We must educate women on prevention – on basic health and nutrition for themselves and their families. We must provide them with information on how to access existing health services. We must create educational forums on how to navigate health systems. Accessing healthcare needs to be less intimidating. We must provide statistics in a meaningful, personal way to demonstrate the positive aspects of prevention and treatment. What we know is if we support the family, we can prevent much of what we see.

How do you create opportunities for transnational cooperation on these issues?

We must share stories of what is working and what is not working. Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT) is one example of policy that is working to change behavior and outcomes in health - households need to change specific behaviors to receive cash. Also, look for organizations that work in multiple countries and create public/private partnerships to address these issues collectively. "Empowerment comes from the belief that you have the knowledge and the tools to act." - Dr. Felicia Knaul

Dr. Felicia Knaul’s commitment to the health of women and families is admirable. While her personal experience with breast cancer provides the motivation, her research provides support for her mission. Dr. Knaul has the ability to cross the lines of academia, government and the private sector to raise awareness, build partnerships, create programs and make a difference in the lives of women and families throughout the Americas. She embodies the vision of the Biennial of the Americas and demonstrates what is possible when people come together with passion, knowledge and commitment to cooperation.