When Christopher Lee began medical school 13 years ago, he planned to become a neuroscientist, a physician-researcher. As an undergraduate, he had created the neuroscience major at McGill University and was its first graduate. While at Harvard Medical School, he worked full-time in a laboratory researching Alzheimer’s disease.
Then he began work that changed his course. While still in medical school, Chris spearheaded an initiative to address primary care needs for people in the Boston area who experienced homelessness. He saw and felt how, when the “functional domains of life” are disrupted, preventive care becomes secondary.
“That’s where my interest in displacement and then emplacement in health began,” he said.
Soon, Chris was specializing in primary care medicine in San Francisco, where he delivered services from a van to directly reach patients living in encampments and parks. The next year, he worked in Southeast Asia for the International Organization for Migration conducting research on the displacement of children following the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. His research found that the further the children had been forced to move from their homes after the tsunami, the more their mental health and school performance were affected.
“What we are doing is hard and ambitious. The stakes are high, but we can potentially save many lives.”
Chris became driven to use research to better understand the effects of displacement on people and the efficacy of humanitarian efforts.
He returned to Southeast Asia to measure the impact of the humanitarian response to the tsunami, and found that the duration of displacement was the strongest negative predictor of long-term outcomes. He also went to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake as a health consultant to the U.N., to Uganda to measure the effects of human trafficking on children and to Guinea to evaluate the effectiveness of a national call center and local alert system on containing Ebola.
“There are few things more important than human lives, human dignity and human rights,” Chris said. “These are the things that draw me to this work. I’m used to difficult operating environments—they don’t scare me, which I suppose is an asset. Need rather than circumstance dictates what I do.”
In just five years, between 2007 and 2012, Chris led research initiatives in half a dozen countries, completed his medical degree at Harvard, his master’s degree at the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford and his master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Chris grew up in the suburbs of Toronto in a family that valued discipline and academic achievement as well as the arts. Chris’s father is a sculptor, grandmother was a painter, sister a graphic designer, aunt a jewelry designer. Growing up, Chris played the trumpet and wrote creatively.
He majored in English literature as an undergraduate—in addition to his neuroscience major—and has held several writing residencies for a novel he continues to work on. The novel explores the concept of time, so he reads the work of physicists and philosophers.
In 2017, Chris joined Resolve to Save Lives as a senior technical advisor.
After his work for the International Organization for Migration, he had worked as a U.S. CDC Epidemic Intelligence Services officer, a position Tom Frieden, Resolve to Save Lives President and CEO, had once held. He then worked as medical officer for the U.S. CDC’s global measles elimination team, leading efforts in Nigeria.
Chris said he came to Resolve to Save Lives because of the magnitude of its goals and approach.
“What we are doing is hard and ambitious. The stakes are high, but we can potentially save many lives. When Tom (Frieden) first spoke to me about preventing epidemics, he was talking about a systems approach for not just one country but the entire world. It is a foray into financing and strategic planning on a global scale and this was new for me, and I knew it would push me and put me in an uncomfortable place.”
Chris set up the Prevent Epidemics program in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa and a hotbed for disease outbreaks.
Through his role at Vital Strategies, Chris has served as health security advisor to the director general of the Nigeria CDC, and supports their strategy, planning and financing. A major accomplishment has been helping the country unlock USD $90 million in funding from the World Bank that had been approved for epidemic detection and response in Nigeria but was stuck without a functioning strategy and lattice of infrastructure to effectively disburse funds. He has also helped grow and strengthen a laboratory network for yellow fever, measles and rubella, create a digital transformation strategy for surveillance data, and establish a revolving fund for rapid responses to new disease outbreaks. His newest project is to strengthen epidemic preparedness and response financing and emergency operations at the state level.
He also, separately, works with the WHO on evaluation of their current global strategy.
Chris hopes that Nigeria can become a model for unlocking more of the USD $600 million the World Bank has committed to epidemic prevention in West Africa—money that has mostly gone undistributed. And in Nigeria, he hopes that the Nigeria CDC will continue as a stronger organization than it was before.
As for himself, he hopes to eventually finish his novel and use the skills he has gained at Vital Strategies to focus again on displacement.