Almost a century ago, in 1920, delegates of 31 nations came together in Paris. One by one they pledged their earnest collaboration in a new global campaign against tuberculosis. Three days later, they created The Union.
They founded The Union on a hope and on a dream that they would bring about a world free from the devastation of tuberculosis — a disease that has been a torment since the beginning of civilization itself.
They founded The Union in a historic act of scientific activism, when the world was still more than 20 years away from the discovery of the first antibiotics.
This was during a time in which they still had no proven vaccine.
Consider their boldness. Think about how audacious their vision was. I do not think it’s an exaggeration to say that when our founders created The Union, they were acting on vision that was unmatched in its scope, unprecedented in its historical significance, and unrivaled in its sheer audacity.
When people ask about The Union, what makes us effective, the answer is always the same. Our people. The strength of The Union is our people.
Going back to our founding, if we can say one thing about the people who make up The Union, it’s that they have been courageous.
In its earliest days, they kept The Union alive when so much of the world was being ravaged through two world wars. And they persevered through the most severe economic depression the world has ever seen.
Resilience is grafted into The Union’s DNA.
We are battling powerful diseases. We are battling a powerful tobacco industry. But The Union, with our history of resilience, has proven that we have the strength to win these battles.
Our diverse members have consistently strengthened The Union and have given us an active, powerful means of fighting these battles. They are persistent. They are tenacious. They will do whatever it takes to succeed, no matter the circumstances of their lives or the conditions they’re working in.
The people of The Union have proven what can be done in very poor settings, sometimes with little resources.
One of the greatest inspirations in my life is Doctor Karel Styblo. Doctor Styblo was a giant of global public health. He served several roles throughout his long career, including Medical Advisor to the Royal Netherlands Tuberculosis Association. In 1979 he became The Union’s Director of Scientific Affairs.
Karel Styblo was a man who could not be stopped.
He was born in Czechslovakia a year after The Union was founded. During World War Two he was imprisoned in a concentration camp in Austria. It was in the camp that he became infected with tuberculosis.
He survived the camp, and when the war ended he was released, and he entered medical school to become a chest physician. While he was studying, his TB became severe and he spent two years in the Bulovka Hospital in Prague.
When Czechoslovakia was invaded in the late sixties, he moved to the Netherlands, where he became a citizen.
During his work as a chest physician, working with Sir John Crofton, he developed the strategy for responding to TB that became known as DOTS.
Sir John Crofton wrote that Doctor Styblo had a genius of persuading governments that tuberculosis was an economic problem, even as it was a public health problem. Serving as a medical doctor and as a public health statesman, he convinced governments around the world to make TB a priority.
And not only wealthy governments – he set out to prove that the poorest countries in the world could stop TB.
He had many detractors. But he was so resilient. He saw that he had an urgent duty.
He set to work. He didn’t first set out to prove that DOTS worked in the UK, or Canada, or the US or the Netherlands. He began in Tanzania.
And he did…not…stop. In Benin, in Malawi, in Mozambique, in China, in Nicaragua, he proved that countries could systematically attack tuberculosis.
Karel Styblo was a man who could have died in a concentration camp, who could have died in a hospital in Prague, only to flee military invasion and go on to leave a legacy of millions of lives saved.
The Union today Karel Styblo embodied everything unique and good about The Union.
Today, the people of The Union are working in more than 140 countries to make life better for people living in some of the most challenging circumstances.
When we interviewed The Union’s stakeholders, we heard that they believe The Union is made up of people who “roll up their sleeves and get the job done.”
These are people like Myint Thein (MY-INT THEE-UH), a TB survivor in Myanmar who volunteers through The Union’s PICTS program, who does everything from finding people with TB, collecting diagnostic samples, linking patients with the health system, and working to dispel TB stigma from his community.
And Doctor Adrian Muwonge (MOO-WONG-AY), who splits his time between two universities, in the UK and in Uganda, where he conducts field research and has been instrumental in developing global policies for fighting zoonotic TB—a man who has even survived TB himself after contracting the disease from a wild wildebeest while working in the field.
And Jorge Laucricia, here in Mexico, who wakes up every day and battles the tobacco industry, building powerful coalitions to advance smoke-free laws that protect millions of families from tobacco across Latin America.
Karel Styblo would be proud.
Everything The Union does, we do in service of the audacious vision that The Union’s founders established nearly a century ago.
Every day, the people of The Union prove to be the keepers of our founders’ dream.
It is because of the resilience of The Union’s people that we have survived as an organization for nearly one hundred years, even during times of war and global uncertainty. The Union’s people have remained on the front lines of public health, even working in remote and difficult areas where few other organizations in the world have gone.
And in these conditions, The Union produces innovations that have a global impact on public health.
You are not only among the world’s leading health experts, researchers, clinicians, managers, advocates. You are among the most dedicated and tireless leaders working on any issue, anywhere.
You are never afraid of challenges. Every day, you push yourselves to fulfill the urgent duty to which we are all committed.
And for that, for everything you do on behalf of The Union, for your tireless work and for your support in service to our mission, you have my deepest respect and gratitude.