Israel's WHO scientists playing a key role in making the world healthier

#13 - Who's Who at WHO: Dorit Nitzan and Sinaia Netanyahu

(L-R) Sinia Netanyahu and Dorit Nitzan (photo credit: Courtesy)
(L-R) Sinia Netanyahu and Dorit Nitzan
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There are only two Israelis with senior positions at the World Health Organization and they are both top women scientists.
Dr. Dorit Nitzan has been a part of WHO for more than 15 years. Today, she serves as the organization’s European Region Health Emergencies coordinator. In September, she was joined by Israel’s former chief scientist of the Environmental Protection Ministry, Dr. Sinaia Netanyahu, who was named the head of the Program for Environmental and Health Impact at the WHO’s Europe office.
The European region has 53 member states, including Israel, with about 880 million inhabitants.
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“I am so happy that Sinaia joined because for years I was looking to have a sister or brother from Israel,” Nitzan told The Jerusalem Post from her headquarters in Copenhagen. “I felt we needed more representation, and we still have places for more people and good professionals to come and join us.”
On the announcement of Netanyahu’s appointment, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “For the last several years, the Foreign Ministry has been involved in efforts to incorporate Israelis into various positions at the UN and UN agencies. The choice of Dr. Netanyahu to the post is great news in this regard and an important milestone.” Netanyahu told the Post that understanding the connection between exposure to environmental hazards and their impact on public health is a critical and important link to building an effective environmental health policy.
“We face many challenges in the fields of air pollution, climate change, chemicals, waste, green area, urbanity and environmental inequality – all of which have an impact on human health and well-being,” she explained, adding that WHO research reports that as many as 20% of all deaths in the European region are a result of the environment, such as air or noise pollution.
She said that there are many differences among countries in the European region and in her new role she hopes to try to harmonize between them. She also said that WHO has issued several policy papers on environmental impact issues over the years and she hopes she will be able to add to them.
During Netanyahu’s time at the Environmental Protection Ministry, she put in place a climate change plan, which was approved by the government in 2018.
“Israel having a climate change adaptation program is something I am really proud of. Multiple ministries are now working toward climate change adaptation.”
She also worked closely with the Health Ministry, and specifically with deputy director-general Itamar Grotto, to develop a national environmental health program, which is still on the government’s table for approval. This plan consists of 17 issues related to improving environmental health.
Netanyahu was married to Prof. Nathan Netanyahu of the Computer Science Dept. at Bar-Ilan University, a first cousin of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She and her ex-husband received their doctorates from University of Maryland, College Park in the 1990s.
Since leaving her ministry, she has become an outspoken critic of government environmental policy.
NITZAN HAS played a key role in the world’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. She said that in the beginning it was more of an emergency response and now she is helping countries to live with the virus – “following up and advising governments and health authorities how to tackle it and tailor their responses to their own context.” Her work ranges from community engagement and trust building in some countries, she told the Post, to providing essential health services or ensuring proper protection for the elderly, healthcare workers and others.
“It is extremely complicated, running and responding while trying to prepare for the unknown. We still do not know how long this will stay with us,” she said.
At the same time, she is spending a lot of work on WHO’s solidarity platforms: vaccine development, medicines, rapid testing and resource mobilization.
“We put together all the research and development into one box,” she said.
She noted that one of the greatest challenges from where she sits is what she called “infodemic,” misinformation that is spread about coronavirus through social networks and other means.
“This pandemic was unique because it comes at a time when the world is connected through social media and everything. What worries me a lot is that people don’t trust the government or health professionals.” 
She praised Israel for being among the first countries to really take strong measures against COVID-19 and said that universal healthcare, as Israel has, was found to be key to a strong coronavirus response. 
“Every person in the country has to have access to quality and continuous health services, from public health to primary care, to emergency care, to hospital care and rehabilitation. Israel has those values; it is part of the country,” she said.
But she added that Israel must invest more in trust building and community engagement so that all people understand that this pandemic is a severe disease.
“I don’t think that this is clear to everyone,” she noted.
Both women said that they are impressed by how their employer is managing not to neglect other health issues during the coronavirus pandemic.
“At these times, we all appreciate the environment and clean air and many of the issues Sinaia mentioned,” Nitzan said. “And we have to get prepared for the next disasters.”
She noted that the massive explosion that rocked Beirut, Lebanon in August was the result of mishandled chemicals and that a high-impact earthquake shook Albania at the start of the pandemic - both disasters that required action by WHO.
“The fact that we have COVID does not make everything else stop,” she Nitzan stressed.
The scientists said that they feel at home at WHO, which they described as an open and humanitarian-based organization.
“I could not find a better place to work for humanity,” Nitzan said. “I think that being Israeli helps - Israel backs me up.”