A man on the move
Dr. Jeffrey Griffiths brings a global perspective to public health
It’s a good thing Dr. Jeffrey Griffiths walks fast. He is running late again because one of his AIDS patients had a crisis. He stops to chat with a colleague, then steams down a hallway of Tufts Medical School to his office, tosses his stethoscope aside, and sweeps a big pile of papers from a chair to accommodate a visitor.
It’s a pace that has become a way of life. As he talks with his hands, making sweeping gestures, he describes a list of projects that might daunt the most ardent crusader. He has an elaborate plan to transform the public-health curriculum at Tufts through an innovative online collaboration with African and Asian universities. He’s also working to help develop a heat-stable measles vaccine, improve drinking-water quality in Africa and the United States, examine the effects of air pollution on pneumonia and of malnutrition on both pneumonia and diarrheal diseases in Ecuador, and extend the lives of AIDS patients.
And that’s not including the rounds he makes as an infectious disease specialist at Tufts-New England Medical Center. Or the teaching and administrative duties associated with being director of the Global Health Division, Department of Public Health and Family Medicine, and an associate professor at the School of Medicine’s Graduate Programs in Public Health.
Griffiths, 50, is always on the go. But then he needs to be: he is bent on nothing less than changing the world. What makes him run? “I’d just like the world to be a better place when I go,” he says. “And it’s fun doing this stuff.’’
At a time in life when many people’s idealism has been dampened a bit by experience, Griffiths is still committed and passionate about fulfilling a childhood dream of being a doctor and helping the poor in the developing world. That’s part of his considerable charm, which he uses to great effect to win people over to his cause. But years of experience have also made him pragmatic, creative about maneuvering around obstacles, and very effective.
Griffiths is the son of an oil company engineer and a teacher who were involved in South American oil exploration; his early childhood was spent in Venezuela and pre-Castro Cuba. When he was age nine, the family moved to Peru.
“I had never seen poverty like I saw there. I was pretty shaken up by it,’’ he says. “The way a child thinks about it is to say, I’ll become a doctor. A more mature person might say, let’s change the political system.’’
But it also left him with a real appreciation for the developing world, where things aren’t as predictable as they are here and where, without television, the art of conversation remains strong. Recently he found himself in Ghana, where he sat with village elders discussing world politics.
“They challenged me to think outside the box in terms of the way the box is defined in the United States,’’ he says. “The Third World is far more interesting than the developed world. Every day is different there.’’
It’s that laid-back style and flexibility that makes him so effective in global health settings, says Jim Hyde, an associate professor in the Department of Public Health and Family Medicine who has traveled and worked with Griffiths on several projects.
“I’ve been to traditional African barbecues with him and terrific restaurants and he’s equally at home at both,’’ says Hyde. “He’s got an infectious enthusiasm that everybody gets caught up with. It makes him fun to work with. But he’s also not easily discouraged or dissuaded and that’s very good. That’s how you get things done.’’
Those traits showed up early in Griffiths’ career. He first set out to work on malaria after receiving his medical degree from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a master’s in public health and tropical medicine from Tulane University. At the time, malaria was not a high priority and he could not get funding. So he came to Tufts and switched his focus to diarrheal diseases. He focused on the water-borne pathogen Cryptosporidium because it combined all his interests—biology, public health, and policy—important issues in the developing world and in the AIDS crisis. This breadth has taken him around the globe and involved him in unique partnerships with Tufts engineers in hopes of improving water quality.
His expertise led to his being appointed to federal EPA boards that have developed water-quality regulations in the wake of the 1993 outbreak of Cryptosporidium in Milwaukee. Since then he has been involved in negotiating water-quality regulations and his interests have evolved from lab science to include environmental testing for the organism and public-health efforts to eliminate it.
“About a dozen years ago it became clear to me that work done in the laboratory doesn’t really change the world,’’ he says. “This experience has really helped me change the breadth of what I do.’’
Griffiths recalls an experience in 2001 when he was in Uganda working with a professor at the Institute of Public Health of Makerere University. She abruptly announced that she had to go home because she had 25 kids to care for; of her eight siblings, she was the only one to survive the AIDS crisis and was now responsible for her generation’s children.
“I was struck silent,’’ says Griffiths. “Sometimes physicians fool themselves that because they’ve seen people die that gives them some great insight into the way the world works. But this made me feel it’s really important to step up to the plate to the important public-health challenges, and one of them is clearly HIV/AIDS.’’
Now Griffiths is working to improve water quality and prevent diarrheal disease to help extend the lives of AIDS patients, who are particularly vulnerable to such disease. If parents live longer, their children have a much better chance of surviving. He’s also working on a pilot study to see if giving malnourished AIDS patients nutritional supplements can extend their lives.
Though he continues to work as a doctor—treating patients with infectious diseases—over the years he has come to value his public-health work most. “I love being a physician. My patients love me. I love it. I find it very stimulating. But having said all that, it doesn’t make the world a better place in the sense that it doesn’t affect populations of people, it only affects an individual.’’
Fifteen years ago he began collaborations in Ecuador around the prevention of diarrheal diseases. Then he and his colleagues decided to include pneumonia in their studies, and started work to learn if nutritional supplements would boost immune systems. They realized that air pollution might affect pneumonia outcomes, so they began looking at that in both rich and poor areas.
“If you’re going to try to influence public policy, the people you want to study may be the policymakers,’’ he says. “I’ve been doing studies of poor malnourished kids in Quito and we haven’t changed any policy yet.”
The study cuts across a number of disciplines—from nutrition to infectious diseases to environmental health. It’s that openness to different disciplines, along with his experience in many areas, that makes Griffiths so effective in global health work, says Davidson Hamer, who has worked with Griffiths on the Ecuador study.
“I think many people are really focused on a narrow area of interest, whereas Jeff has very broad interests and is also good at bringing in people from other disciplines,’’ says Hamer, an adjunct professor at Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and a professor of international health at Boston University. “He’s also got a good sense of humor. He’s very easy to work with, so he’s been able to build collaborations with people all over the world.’’
Griffiths has a reputation as a strong grant writer who knows how to keep money flowing even when research funding is lean, and how to keep projects moving forward when the money dries up. That skill has attracted one of Griffiths’ favorite new projects—an effort to make a heat-stable vaccine for measles that could eliminate the disease in the developing world, where it now kills between 500,000 and 1 million people a year.
The project aims to make a human version of an effective existing heat-stable vaccine against rinderpest—the animal form of measles—developed by Dr. Jeffrey Mariner, V87, and colleagues at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Though Griffiths has plenty to keep him busy and the project falls outside his normal areas of expertise, he felt he had to step up.
He jokes: “If any reader wants to donate $1 million to the most important public-health effort you can imagine ... You’re talking about saving a half million lives each year. It’s a big deal.’’
Despite the current difficult funding environment, don’t count Griffiths out. He networked for more than five years to get people onboard his latest project, an effort to develop a Global Health curriculum that will link Tufts students with students in Africa and South and Southeastern Asia. Recently, the National Institutes of Health awarded him a $405,000 grant to get the project off the ground. The program will build on the Tufts University Sciences Knowledgebase (TUSK), the most comprehensive and advanced online health-sciences educational database in the country.
Griffiths hopes to take that effort to the next level so that Tufts students will one day be working and studying together with students in Africa and elsewhere using the online technology. This venture will create a research-teaching infrastructure that will help keep public-health collaborations alive even when research grant funding fails, as it so often does. It’s also a way to use technology to get around the fact that there’s little money available for student exchanges.
“I’m hoping that, by the end of the decade, Tufts students won’t learn about problems in other countries, they’ll learn with people in other countries,’’ he says.
But does Griffiths ever get frustrated by the shortage of money to sustain lifesaving projects in the developing world?
“I’ve lived in the world too long to be upset by the fact that there’s going to be a delay,” he says. “The secret to success in life is, you just keep moving.’’
Karen Rafinski is a freelance writer based in Boston.