Interconnectedness of Public Health Approach: Profile of Humphrey Fellow Ye Min Htet

Dr. Ye Min Htet is currently a Humphrey Fellow at the Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center (NTD-SC), assisting the research team. As his fellowship—sponsored by the U.S Department of State—comes to a close, he shares his journey into public health, seasoned with a variety of colorful experiences and key public health insights from around the globe. 

Min was born and raised in Myanmar and formally trained as doctor. After finishing medical school, his first glimpse into public health work involved HIV prevention work with men who have sex with men, sex workers, and other vulnerable populations, which highlighted an essential component public health approach: taking individual factors into account while addressing the needs of the community to effectively strengthen health systems.

His subsequent assignment with Medicins sans Frontiers- overseeing integrated HIV/TB and Primary Health Care program in Northern Myanmar to over 10,000 HIV patients on treatment- was a particularly challenging one. This was in an active conflict zone with a large number of internally displaced population, gold and jade mines, and drug trade.  Given the context, the tasks of providing uninterrupted long-term treatment to a population that drifted in and out of clinic catchment area, ensuring consistent availability of lab equipment, testing kits, and other tools, and running a clinic that was liable to attacks and required health workers to run for cover at short or little notice were all challenges that Min faced in the field. Working in a space where he was confronted by the reality and gravity of these circumstances uniquely contributed to Min’s public health knowledge base.

He then became a technical officer for a USAID/ PEPFAR project for which he worked to improve strengthening of HIV supply chain in Myanmar. This positioned the program strongly for funding and allowed them to make long-term strategic planning, which increased the overall strength of National HIV/AIDS programmatic presence.

Min then received a scholarship from Heidelberg University in Germany to join a Master program in International Health, where he was able to learn more formally about different approaches to public health—and where he was introduced to the world of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). For his thesis, he returned to Myanmar to complete field research to study soil transmitted helminths, which made joining NTD-SC a logical next step in his career. 

“Up until that point I only had experience working in HIV/TB prevention and control, but when I was introduced to the nature of NTDs, they were inherently different because of the stronger emphasis on elimination and eradication strategies”, he said. 

Upon completing of his Masters, he became a Program Team Leader for The Three Millennium Development Goal Fund (3MDG) of the United Nations Office for Project Services, for whom he managed a portfolio of public health grants in HIV/Harm Reduction, tuberculosis, malaria, maternal and child health, and health system strengthening. He reviewed proposals, monitored programmatic quality, and managed funding from USAID, DFID, and country donors. Min’s supervisor at the time encouraged him to apply for the Humphrey Fellowship, a mid-career level fellowship that give international students options to study at Emory University and work in surrounding organizations.

At NTD-SC, his current focus is on Lymphatic Filariasis efforts in Ghana, looking at ways to implement elimination strategies in South East Asian countries.

“NTD-SC really acknowledges the role of social science, which is key to identifying and targeting gaps in coverage and optimizing impact in these areas,” he said. “In general, the field of public health is way more complex than the biomedical research informed approach. Public health works with communities and acknowledges the individual. Similar to HIV, where social factors are part and parcel of the disease transmission and approach, NTDs intersect with a variety of contextual factors like poverty and gender. While the biomedical aspect brings progress, it’s not, and should not be treated as, the magic bullet. There are many more overlapping aspects that need to be considered.”

Min has a myriad of interests outside of NTDs. As someone who is passionate about improving child outcomes, he founded “Moe Thank Yaung Chi (MTYC)”, a community campaign that provides an educational opportunity to orphans and poor children who do not have access otherwise. To do this, volunteers created a library full of children’s books, with the hope to instill a habit of reading early on in their lives. After completing their book, the children are encouraged to share and discuss important lessons learned from the book with each other.

“Rather than teaching, it is important to give more of a critical thinking mindset, and by sharing what they learn with others, they can foster communication skills that make them comfortable to speak up and share their thoughts,” said Min.  

Along the same vein, he is also working on translating a book he came across, titled: Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls- a book close to his heart, especially as a father of a four-year-old girl.

“After thinking about the books that are in my country, I noticed that many children’s books allude to the recurrent theme suggesting that the female has to be rescued by the male figure when a problem arises,” he explained. “When I came across this book, the emphasis was on strong, intelligent, and confident women with messages that I want my daughter and other children her age to grow up reading, rather than promoting the outdated concept that females are dependent on their male counterparts. It’s important that young girls feel that they are capable and resilient, and can always achieve what they set their mind to, no matter what male-dominated messages are being thrown at them.”

Min is a strong advocate for improving access to health services in the conflict-affected and ethnic minority areas of Myanmar.  His public health philosophy revolves around the belief of shifting programs’ approach from system-centered to people-centered—a viewpoint inspired by a quote attributed to David Addiss, who directs the Focus Area on Compassion and Ethics at The Task Force for Global Health. 

David says: “A special challenge for global health professionals is to make sure we do not lose sight of the individual human faces behind the health statistics that so inform our work. Attending to both the faces and the numbers—the individual and the collective—is necessary. Without being fully present to the people who suffer, our compassion can wither; without access to accurate data, our global health programs can become ineffective.”

Min is somebody who has done just that. Those who are lucky to have worked with him recognize his ability to deal with complex issues and emphasis on the needs of the people. He consistently displays overflowing kindness, enthusiasm, and sincerity towards his work, which make his continued contributions towards public health and NTD-SC invaluable.

 

To learn more about the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, visit https://www.humphreyfellowship.org/.