Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury, who championed access to healthcare in rural Bangladesh, dies at 81
Bangladeshi public health activist Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury, a champion for access to basic healthcare in rural Bangladesh, passed away on Tuesday at age 81. Chowdhury, who founded the healthcare organisation Gonoshasthaya Kendra, received the Right Livelihood Award in 1992.
“Dr Chowdhury had a vision for a more just society that began with equal access to healthcare,” said Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director at Right Livelihood. “Through his work at Gonoshasthaya Kendra, he strived for almost 50 years to make that vision a reality. Today, we remember Dr Chowdhury’s passion for saving lives and helping people flourish. His life’s work is an inspiration for future generations to ensure that no one has to suffer because they don’t have access to medical services.”
Chowdhury was a Bangladeshi medical doctor trained as a vascular and general surgeon in London. Seeing the need for basic healthcare in Bangladesh, which gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, Chowdhury and his colleagues founded Gonoshasthaya Kendra, a non-governmental organisation working on people-oriented healthcare, in 1972.
The work initially focused on providing comprehensive healthcare in rural areas emphasising independent, self-reliant and people-orientated development. Over the years, Gonoshasthaya Kendra has steadily expanded the scope of its work into other areas that affect the lives of rural-based Bangladeshis: education, nutrition, agriculture, employment generation, production of basic medicines and women’s emancipation.
Gonoshasthaya Kendra has been known for many innovations. It was the first place outside of China to provide comprehensive training to paramedics, who are often the main healthcare providers in rural communities. Thanks to their work, infant and maternal mortality have fallen significantly in areas where they operate.
Chowdhury was also a leading force behind the development of his country’s 1982 Essential Drugs Act, which helped Bangladesh control the cost and supply of essential medications. Realising that imported drugs were often too expensive and in short supply, Gonoshasthaya Kendra set up a pharmaceutical company in 1981 to manufacture essential drugs of the highest quality at low cost. Building on this experience, Chowdhury was able to advise the Bangladeshi government on developing a policy that focused on manufacturing generic drugs locally, eliminating dangerous and unnecessary drugs imported from abroad.
Chowdhury was also very engaged on the international stage as one of the main actors behind the People’s Health Movement, a global network bringing together grassroots health activists, civil society organisations and academic institutions. Gonoshathay Kendra hosted this Movement’s first assembly.
Chowdhury and Gonoshasthaya Kendra received the Right Livelihood Award “for their outstanding record of promotion of health and human development.”