A Lifelong Commitment and a ‘Wild Ride’ to Tackle Global Diseases
Richard Reithinger is an expert in the elimination and eradication of global diseases.
Diseases like COVID-19 aren’t unfamiliar territory to Richard Reithinger Vice President of Global Health at RTI. Reithinger, who has been drawn to natural sciences ever since high school, shared that he quite literally stumbled into his decades-long career in global health.
“I was walking past a university corridor and saw a flyer for a post-graduate course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and thought, ‘let me look into that’,” shared Reithinger. “I’d realized that lab-based sciences weren’t really my thing and this flyer felt like courses I was looking for, but hadn’t yet found.”
Since then, Reithinger has held positions in academia and various non-governmental organizations, working in close partnership with ministries of health in low-and middle-income countries to implement a range of health programs. He even served as the leader to launch the President’s Malaria Initiative in Ethiopia – including working with the current Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, when he was Ethiopia’s Minister of Health.
Hooked on Studying Global Diseases
During graduate school at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Reithinger was one of three students in his medical entomology course to travel globally to conduct field studies, and he ended up in Cali, Colombia, to study cutaneous leishmaniasis, a neglected tropical disease (NTD) impacting coffee-growing communities there.
“The whole experience in Colombia got me hooked – I was fascinated by the disease and the leishmaniasis transmission cycle, as well as the intersection between public health, anthropology and economic livelihood,” he shared. “I had that moment where I thought, ‘this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
For his PhD studies, Reithinger went to the Andean mountains in Peru, where he continued to study the epidemiology of cutaneous leishmaniasis. This time the impact of people’s mobility on the disease in the region struck him.
“People would go from the mountains to the Amazon Forest to grow coca and then come back with the bug (that transmits leishmaniasis), inadvertently helping to establish new transmission cycles of leishmaniasis species not previously endemic in the mountains. This mobility pattern is somewhat similar to what we are currently seeing with COVID-19 and its variants,” he said.
The Holy Grail of Global Health
Reithinger’s work in Colombia and Peru helped to inspire his passion for supporting the operational side of public health programs and turning practice into policy – part of his day-to-day role at RTI.
“I spent many years in Afghanistan and Pakistan doing operational research and if it was successful, the next day it was a national policy – very exciting stuff,” he explained. “If we discover a treatment or intervention is effective, my passion is transferring it into a policy and rolling it out at large, national scale – the holy grail in disease prevention, case management, and control.”
Reithinger and his team at RTI have had several successes turning policy into practice, including under USAID’s Act to End NTD’s East program, led by RTI. In the countries supported by the program, more than 220 million people are no longer at risk for lymphatic filariasis and 99 million are no longer at risk for trachoma, two NTDs that cause tremendous suffering and disability in affected population. Overall, the program has led to people being able to live healthier and more productive lives -- free from these diseases.
Under Reithinger’s leadership, RTI’s successes in global health have not stopped there. The team remains committed to strengthening health systems, improving reproductive and maternal health and addressing the global burden of infectious and noncommunicable diseases.
“We’re taking what we know is working and effective and implementing it in the countries that we serve with disease elimination as the long-term goal,” he said.
Can COVID-19 be Eliminated?
Whether or not COVID-19 will continue to spread across the globe has remained a top-of-mind question since the pandemic began in late 2019. Although there are extremely effective vaccines that are proven to work, Reithinger noted that vaccination rates “aren’t there yet.”
“With COVID-19 everything must come together: an effective intervention in a short amount of time, funding, political leadership at a global and country level, operational platforms to do the job and community engagement and support within individual communities. In the U.S., we currently lack unanimous community engagement and support with the vaccine as well as other interventions such as face masking, and consequently the execution of our COVID-19 response is hampered,” he explained.
He shared an example of the true level of support needed to eliminate infectious diseases from his time in Ethiopia with the President’s Malaria Initiative: “(In Ethiopia) There was incredibly strong leadership and support for health programming. At the same time, you had stakeholders who were strong leaders, committed, and collaborative – it was phenomenal in terms of working energy. There were limited coordination issues, and everyone was on the same page with regards to what needed to be done and how everyone was contributing towards a common goal.”
Reithinger shared he believes our COVID-19 response will eventually become similar to our response to the flu. It will be part of life, and we will have to learn to live with it by administering vaccines to protect against current and future virus variants.
A Global Problem that Needs a Global and Local Plan
With COVID-19, Reithinger thinks the answer to moving forward is that: “Any country, including the U.S., needs to pursue a dual track to sorting out their individual COVID-19 outbreaks, while simultaneously engaging on a global level.”
He continued by sharing that, “there is not another disease in the world where the local and global responses need to be so intrinsically connected. If we are still dealing with COVID-19 globally, we will still be faced with it in the U.S. – even if we temporarily eliminate the disease in the U.S.”
For instance, if Ebola came to the U.S. it would be quickly isolated and eliminated. COVID-19, however, is much more transmissible and people are more susceptible to it – meaning that isolating cases is more challenging.
The Key to a Successful Global Health Program
Although it might not be possible to eliminate COVID-19, Reithinger is hopeful for the elimination of other global diseases.
“The key (to disease elimination and even eradication) is that you have a community of stakeholders with the same vision and goal who are all moving in the same direction toward it,” he explained, “The funding is there, the donor base is there, the local governments are committed and want to take action and then implementing partners, like RTI, are able to support the execution,” he says.
The Right Place at the Right Time
Reithinger will begin the transition into RTI’s Fellow program in 2022 to accelerate his growth as a technical leader and expand his technical contributions. With this change comes reflection on the opportunities he’s gained from entering the global health field.
“There’s the age-old adage of being at the right place at the right time – I feel like I’ve experienced that through my entire career,” said Reithinger. And when asked the one thing he would tell a younger version of himself, he didn’t hesitate to say, “buckle up – it’s going to be a wild ride.”