The Global Impact of ‘Life For a Child’ with Dr. Graham Ogle
Life for a Child believes that no child should die of diabetes. The organization seeks to help children living with Type 1 diabetes in under-resourced countries get the tools and critical care that they need and deserve.
Beyond Type 1 recently sat down (virtually) with Dr. Graham Ogle, Life for a Child’s General Manager, about his professional history as a pediatric endocrinologist before joining the organization, as well as the issues that Life for a Child addresses around the world.
BT1: Thanks so much for speaking with us, Graham! We’re just consistently in awe of the work you’re doing and have done with Life for a Child. What was your background and history like in the diabetes space before joining Life for a Child?
Graham: Sure, good morning Alexi, it’s great to speak with you. I trained in pediatric endocrinology in Sydney and then took a left turn. I went up to Papua New Guinea and worked there for three years, and then worked in Cambodia for a year. And then back in Papua New Guinea for two further years. Doing not just pediatric endocrinology, but all sorts of other types of medicine. And this was in the late 1990s. And while I was in those countries, I realized the great needs that people with endocrinological disorders, particularly diabetes, had in those countries.
How did Life for a Child start?
I came back to Sydney in the year 2000 and was asked by Professor Martin Silink, who was head of the children’s section for the IDF, the children, adolescent interest group for the IDF at the time. And Martin asked me to work with him to set up a sponsorship program, to help children with diabetes in less-resourced countries. Because it had come to the attention of the IDF that these children were not thriving. Many were dying or developing early and devastating complications. And so, the program started as a very small pilot program in 2000 and has grown since then.
How did you know that this was the path that you wanted to take?
I went into pediatrics because I enjoy working with children and parents. And watching children grow and having to adapt as a physician as the young person changes and matures. And I really enjoy endocrinology because there’s lots of science, but there’s also a lot of art to endocrinology, I think, particularly pediatric endocrinology. And when I was in Papua New Guinea and in Cambodia, you see that there is a huge difference in access for people with diabetes — in particular, with Type 1 diabetes, compared to the access that we have in Australia or America or another high-income country. And I was with a Christian mission in Papua New Guinea and Cambodia. I had the opportunity to be helping people at the grassroots level, and able to see how they lived and to get to know them. I saw different situations happen, and that led to what we’re doing now.
A lot of people might not know just how dire the situation is in these underdeveloped countries. What are some of the issues that these children are really facing?
A good example is the first time I went to Mali, which was around 10 years ago now, and there were very few people alive with Type 1 diabetes in Mali at that time. A study had been done in the 1990s and we followed up with the authors of that study. And 18 out of 20 young people with diabetes were dead within a few years. And when I went to Mali, Santé Diabète had started a French Malian NGO who had started working with the government to improve services.
And they were very open to collaborating with us and just traveling around seeing the situations that these young people were in. I saw the determination of the health care workers and the love of the parents, visiting children in their homes… they were just wanting to be like any other child and have all the experiences. I think that was one of the places where it really hit home to me that these needs are there and it isn’t just what we do… it’s the local champions in these countries who are critical to the success. Things can really turn around and they have in Mali.
What are some of the countries that you’ve been working with so far?
Well, in terms of the numbers, the biggest numbers are in young people that we help are in Ethiopia, in India and in Bangladesh. And actually, in Eritrea. Eritrea is a little country in the horn of Africa, but it has a very high incidence of Type 1 diabetes. And we’ve just published data from there, with the Eritrean National Diabetes Association, which shows that the incidence in 15-25 year-olds is possibly the highest anywhere in the world for Type 1 diabetes. So, there are a few countries where we support over a thousand young people with diabetes, it’s up to 2,000-3,000 in some countries. Then there are other countries where the numbers are in the hundreds, or less than that. It depends on the population of the country and who our partners are. In some countries, we have our footprint that covers most of the country. In other big countries like India and Mexico, we’re just getting going really. There’s la lot of unmet needs there.
Can you describe a moment from your experience with the organization that sticks out for you as a time where you realized just what an impact you were making?
There are lots. I think one of my favorite ones was being in Tajikistan and Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan in central Asia. The NGO that we’re working with and the government endocrinology center had organized an education day and time for me to meet the young people and their families. And I was accompanied by Gunduz Ahmadov, who’s a pediatric endocrinologist from Azerbaijan. And we went into this hall and the children sang and did little presentations. And then they played musical chairs and it was just so much fun to see them play musical chairs. After that, the young doctors then, who were all a bit reserved at first, got so excited seeing the children play, that the young doctors then joined them in playing musical chairs.
Seeing the light and the fire in these young people’s eyes, and their mothers and a few fathers who’d come along with them as well. And everyone was sort of in it together— the mothers were talking to each other and the kids were talking to each other and the doctors were asking questions, it was just a wonderful experience.
What is on the horizon for Life for a Child?
It’s a big year for us in concert with the hundredth anniversary of insulin, with the discovery this month. We’re going to continue to expand. Currently, we’re helping around 23,000 young people in 42 countries. And we have a plan to expand that to 150,000 young people in, in 65 countries within 10 years.
And that is being supported by Eli Lilly and the Helmsley Charitable Trust, JDRF and many individual donors and fundraisers. And so, we’re pushing the “GO” button on all sorts of projects and expansions, even despite the COVID pandemic. That has obviously slowed things down, but we have some wonderful partners, Direct Relief as well, who help with logistics. And they’ve been helping with the COVID situation as well. And we have a whole army of our volunteers who are helping. And because that first conversation that we’d had. So, there’s a lot about to happen, and we’re very excited about all of it.
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