Dr. Kazem Behbehani (OBE), Director-General of Kuwait’s Dasman Diabetes Institute and former Assistant Director-General of World Health Organization (WHO), was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen of England in 2014. The prestigious title was conferred on the doctor in recognition of his outstanding work in international and global health.
During a recent exclusive interview, Dr. Behbehani spoke at length about his work at WHO and the important role that the Dasman Diabetes Institute (DDI) was playing in treatment and management of diabetes. He points out that through unique treatments and pioneering research, as well as creating more public awareness on diabetes, the institute was making a difference in the fight against the disease in Kuwait.
Asked about his reaction to the prestigious honor conferred on him by the British monarch, Dr. Behbehani said, “I had no idea that I, a Kuwaiti, was considered for such an honor by Her Majesty the Queen of England. But I can assure you it was a very pleasant surprise that I will always recall and cherish.”
In the interview, Dr. Behbehani elaborated on his work at WHO, where he held a number of key senior positions, including the post of Assistant Director-General.
“Prior to my appointment as Assistant Director- General, I was the Director of WHO’s Program on Tropical Medicine. In fact, the recognition and honor bestowed on me by Her Majesty the Queen was more for my achievements in the field of tropical medicine. During my tenure at WHO I was able to develop and lead a very ambitious program to eliminate diseases that had been plaguing developing countries for centuries. Our greatest achievement was creating a global initiative to eradicate lymphatic filariasis,” said Dr. Behbehani.
As Director of Tropical Medicine you pioneered a new approach at WHO; tell us a little bit about what you did and why it was so new?
Well, very briefly, the first thing I did was to bring all the main stakeholders around the table to plan a global battle against lymphatic filariasis, or what is often called elephantiasis. I realized, from a very early stage, that the committed parties lacked coordination in their approach in fighting this disease, and I was able to bring together the European Union, the WHO and the pharmaceutical industry. This was a major step forward for WHO which, until that point, was working more or less alone.
My philosophy has always been to try to get people to collaborate, join forces, share ideas and bring their resources together in order to face problems. I assure you that it was a great success and the program I created is still being strongly implemented. The model of collaboration I created has also been taken up by other programs at WHO. By 2020, we hope to have eradicated this dreadful disease.
Tell us about your decision to come back to Kuwait and lead the Dasman Diabetes Institute.
My decision was very simple. His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al- Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, the Amir of Kuwait, asked me to return due to the increasing problem of diabetes in Kuwait and his concern that the problem was not receiving the attention it deserved. Of course you can imagine, I immediately accepted and came back to find a frightening situation. During the years I had been away, diabetes had become a major problem throughout the GCC and the Middle-East. Diabetes had traditionally been considered to be more of a problem for highly developed countries such as the United States and not countries such as Kuwait where we were more concerned about communicable diseases.
What I saw when I came back was a rapidly growing rate of all types of diabetes and a society that was not only unaware of the challenge but also unprepared to deal with it.
Do you mean that nothing was being done in Kuwait?
Not at all; in fact one of the things that Kuwait does not lack is good medical specialists. We have excellent physicians specialized in diabetes in Kuwait. But, in 2009, when His Highness asked me to take over the position of Director-General of Dasman Diabetes Institute, there was no consolidated national effort to tackle the problem. I think many people were simply accepting diabetes as just another disease and assuming there was nothing that could be done about it. It was the same type of problem I had seen in many other countries when I was with WHO. Accordingly, I decided to make DDI a Kuwait center of excellence that would bring together the talents of our specialists in Kuwait and at the same time embody a research and training program capable of responding to the challenges of diabetes in Kuwait.
The problem is that there are still too many people who do not know enough about diabetes, not that they do not know about the Dasman Diabetes Institute. Today, Kuwait is one of the top countries in the world suffering from diabetes. Almost a quarter of our population are diabetic. This is a frightening and alarming statistic and many people do not seem to be aware that the most common form of diabetes, namely Type 2 diabetes, is highly preventable. Moreover even when people have diabetes there is a lot they can do to manage it and lead a normal life and a good quality lifestyle. But we still find people suffering from diabetes complications such as loss of sight and serious foot and leg problems that require intensive care.
Are you saying the situation is getting worse?
In some ways no; and in other ways yes; let me explain what I mean by that. In terms of treatment we have never been in better shape than we are today in Kuwait. There are a number of excellent diabetes specialists in Kuwait, and at the Dasman Diabetes Institute we have a podiatry program that has become a world leader. We have put together a team of international podiatry specialists and brought a new type of treatment from Cuba that is now literally saving legs from amputation. We are very proud of all of this and I can say that there are people in Kuwait who will walk well again as a result of the treatment they have received at Dasman.
Our education programs have become increasingly effective. We are reaching out more than ever to children in schools, and our nutrition education programs are bringing new ideas and better lifestyle practices into homes and in doing so gradually promoting healthier eating and cooking habits.
We have created research programs that attracted world-wide recognition and today the Dasman Diabetes Institute is collaborating with major universities such as Harvard in the United States, Oxford, Cambridge, Dundee in the UK, and ICMHD in Switzerland. I think our research is going to make a big difference to our understanding of diabetes in Kuwait and the Middle East, and tell us why some people are more vulnerable than others. It will also provide a key to how we can intervene to improve diabetes prevention and treatment.
At the same time I must admit that the lifestyles of people in Kuwait and other parts of the world continue to worry me. Globally we are becoming too sedentary and the fast food industry has become a global phenomenon that is changing our traditional eating habits. While I recognize that this is not in itself bad, there is a downside to it, namely that we are eating too much unhealthy food and we are exercising too little. People everywhere are becoming more obese and considering it as normal, when in fact, it is highly dangerous. There is still a lot to do here in Kuwait and elsewhere in the world to control and regulate this.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Well I would like to say that I am obliged and very grateful to His Highness Sheikh Sabah Al -Ahmad Al Jaber Al-Sabah the Amir of Kuwait for entrusting me with his confidence to take up this challenge through my position at the Dasman Diabetes Institute and for his support and guidance. I would also like to thank him for giving so much attention to the problem of diabetes. In addition I would like to express my sincere appreciation to Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the Crown Prince of Kuwait for his continuous support. It has been an immense challenge but I think we are now making a difference and I hope that our future generations will benefit from the work we are doing at the Dasman Diabetes Institute. We have benefitted enormously from the support of the Ministry of Health and the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences and I hope we will continue to do so.