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Sharon Friel

Sharon Friel 130x180I am from a part of Glasgow where men are quite likely to die before the age of 55 years. Things are not much better for women. Intergenerational poverty and long term unemployment are not uncommon, and the physical and mental health of such population groups is very poor. My outrage at these socially produced health inequities has taken me on a professional journey involving matters of global health; social determinants of health inequities; food policy and food security; climate change and health; and urbanisation and health – as an academic, a government advisor, chair of public health organisations, and member of national and international committees.

My journey has been eclectic, profoundly moving and hugely satisfying. Currently I am professor of health equity at the Australian National University. This is not where I started. I obtained a BSc in Chemistry from Strathclyde University, Scotland, in 1989, after which I worked as a researcher at the University of Warwick, England. Between 1991 and 2005 I worked in the Republic of Ireland as a lecturer in the Department of Health Promotion, National University of Ireland, Galway. I became assistant academic director for the centre for health promotion studies at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and assistant academic director of the Irish National Nutrition Surveillance Centre. While working full time in Ireland, I completed an MSc by research in health promotion and a PhD in social and nutritional epidemiology.

I moved to Australia early 2005 to take up a research fellow position at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University. But by far the most important input that I have had in global health policy is through my work in the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health. In 2005, I won the prestigious position of head of its scientific secretariat based at University College London with its chair Michael Marmot. After that, in 2010 I was awarded an inaugural ARC Future Fellowship to investigate the interface between social determinants, climate change and health inequities, based at the Australian National University; and in 2011 I was made full Professor of Health Equity at ANU.

Throughout this time my concern for social justice and health inequity has increased, and I realise that health equity is a political struggle. My research strives to understand how policy decisions affect health inequities and how to improve policy development and implementation in a way that it takes health equity seriously. I work with lawyers, political scientists and urban planners alongside public health colleagues.

My research is policy focused in the areas of trade, urban development, food systems, climate change and social determinants more broadly. People ask me why I work in the area of health inequity – they ask, is it not too complex and too hard? Every time I return home to the East End of Glasgow I am reminded that something has to change and that everyone has the right to health. For me, not working in the area of health inequity is not an option.

Working with colleagues internationally I have captured the global momentum built through the WHO Commission, and in 2009 I established HealthGAEN, a global alliance of researchers, policy makers and non-government organisations concerned with action on the social and environmental determinants of health equity. As chair of the Asia Pacific hub, I am working with colleagues to expand a regional research programme, to develop training and capacity development in the social determinants of health equity, and to work with countries to develop and implement policy in issues of health equity and social justice.