Meet the boss
Growing up in the dusty streets of Mogoditshane many years ago, Lebapotswe Tlale always imagined that he would someday become a doctor and make his family and community proud.
He knew he needed to study hard to achieve his dreams and he did, excelling in his school work and eventually graduating with flying colours from the school of medicine at the University of West Indies in Trinidad & Tobago in 2008.
Now at the age of 41, Dr Tlale is not only an envy to his peers and a role model to the youth of this country, he is also Acting Executive Director of Botswana Public Health Institute (BPHI), a newly established organisation which was formed in September 2020. With 13 months into office, Dr Tlale speaks of a vision to have a resilient public health system with the ability to withstand both internal and external disease outbreaks.
Boasting a wealth of experience working at the Ministry of Health at the Child Health Department, consultant at World Health Organizations (WHO) through Botswana Medicines Regulatory Authority (BOMRA) for a vaccine safety programme as well as serving in the Covid-19 Task Force Team, Dr Tlale talks to us about his role at the helm of the BPHI.
BPHI is fairly new, what is its mandate?
BPHI is a department under the Ministry of Health established in September 2020 with the mandate to combat public health emergencies and public health threats. We have been fighting the Covid-19 pandemic which is a public health emergency, so the institute is there for diseases such as Covid-19 and diarrhoea which have a potential for an outbreak.
So with the institute in place we will position ourselves such that we are able to prevent these kind of diseases. The aim is to always be ready for them, effectively respond such that there can be less damage to social livelihoods and economic sectors.
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That’s quite a broad area for the institute, won’t you say?
Yes, all this comes from the Global Health Security Agenda which is a world organisation which sets the record straight that for us to defeat diseases we should come together and pinpoint areas to improve on. When it comes to immunization much care should be to procure vaccines and store them on time, try to produce our own vaccines where we can manage and have enough warehouses for stockpiles.
When did BPHI commence operations?
The journey to starting this department began in 2015 but it took quite a long time before it was fully functional. In 2020 everything finally came together because of the realization that there were many diseases which were spreading at an alarming rate. We have five departments being; surveillance and information management, public health emergency management, public health laboratory, research and corporate governance.
What strategy do you have in place to effectively achieve your mandate?
We mostly employ prevention measures where possible to contain disease. For vaccine preventable diseases we make sure majority of people are vaccinated, especially kids. There are diseases without vaccines, but being preventable, in that area we push for public health education in order for people to change their lifestyles in order to prevent such diseases.
We make strides to educate people on prevention of diseases and promotion of good hygienic practices. We further employ use of law to prevent transmission of certain infections through restriction and monitoring movement of people like it happened during Covid-19.
BPHI was established at the height of the pandemic, what role did BPHI play in fighting the scourge?
We are relatively new, so what we are doing follow best practices. From the pandemic we learnt a lot but all along the National Disaster Management Committee together with the Task Force were there to lead the fight. But of course we learnt a lot so that in future when we have similar situations like the pandemic we can have better health resilience and be able to withstand.
How advanced are we in research as Botswana?
Research is one of the areas which has gaps in Botswana because it requires skills and competency. Part of reasons which led to the formation of this department are gaps identified in research area when capacity assessment was made with regards to responding to public health emergencies.
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The aim is for us to be able to conduct our research together with local institutions such that next time when we face another pandemic we are able to respond based on our own capacity. We have proposed a Pandemic Fund to strengthen our research area since it does require money to do studies and research.
As BPHI have you ever thought of tapping into indigenous plants to derive value from them?
That’s an area of interest for us and as we expand that’s one area the institute will be looking into and guiding the public. As you are aware, public universities we have around have research centres which have been keen on this area and these plants have impact in people’s lives in terms of public health.
We will surely facilitate Batswana and look at those plants to establish their medicinal value and to see if they can be used in Botswana and outside.
What is BPHI’s role in combating non communicable diseases which are gaining traction?
We are not only focused on infectious disease. Through our surveillance department we also look into the non-communicable diseases and monitor their trend and inform the relevant department in the Ministry of Health. In two weeks time, we will be doing a risk assessment to establish those diseases which can be dangerous to the population so we inform relevant departments.
We will not be only looking at diseases but also things like road traffic accidents which are a course for concern. Mental health is also one area that we will put a hawk’s eye on considering how it is becoming a burden .
As a leader what is your roadmap for this organisation?
As a leader I want to create a direction where my colleagues can prosper and exert their full potential so that at the end of the day we achieve the vision we have set which is to become a centre of excellence in preventing and responding to public health threats.
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Further we want to create awareness around public health issues such that the community becomes part and parcel of combating diseases.
How ready are we as Botswana for any new pandemic?
Public health is all about data and preventing the mistakes you have done. So what is important is we know that Covid-19 hit us at a level we didn’t expect. These diseases are called pandemics because in most cases the capacity that you have is overwhelmed by the impact of the disease. What is important is to be always ready to have capacity over the event such that the event doesn’t over power you.
We learnt some of the strengths we have and some of the mistakes and limitations we had during Covid-19. We have learnt that planning is key to guide us with what we need to put in place. We are doing joint external evaluation which assess the key capacities and areas to improve. Already we have placed people externally in countries such as Malawi and Kenya for benchmarking and public health force development.
On a lighter note have you always wanted to be a doctor?
My dreams have always changed but the dream I’m living now has made me realise that medicine has always been my calling.