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Terrain, Disease No Match for Sudanese Doctor

  • In this photo from 2002, Dr. Nabil Aziz Awad Alla, the Center's country representative in Sudan, works to remove a Guinea worm from the ankle of a man. (Photo: The Carter Center/ M. Pelletier)

Dr. Nabil Aziz Awad Alla, the Carter Center's longtime country representative in Sudan, has not lived the quiet life of a pencil-pushing administrator. He's a hands-on boss who prefers to look his people in the eye and observe situations directly.

Nabil's preference for action over office has produced a pile of perilous episodes: He once made a field visit to a town while it was under armed siege; during a Guinea worm surveillance trip, he nearly died of cerebral malaria; and he's been stranded in the desert—once with no food and little water, and another time with three flat tires.

Nabil shrugs off these hair-raising incidents as part of the job. "Unless you go to be with your workers in the field and unless you talk to them, things will not move," he said.

Under Nabil's leadership, things have moved. Sudan stopped transmission of Guinea worm in 2002 and hasn’t had a case since.

  • To reach remote communities in Abu Hamad, Sudanese health teams navigate the Nile River before driving hours through a vast and unpredictable desert. (Photo: The Carter Center/ M. Katabarwa)

Transmission of river blindness was interrupted in Sudan's vast Abu Hamad focus in 2012, an achievement once thought impossible.

"Dr. Nabil is fearless. I never heard him say, 'I don’t want to go there, it's a little too dicey,'" said Mark Pelletier, associate director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Overseas Operations unit. Pelletier formerly was a Guinea Worm Eradication Program technical advisor in Sudan. "His courage gave me courage."

Nabil earned his medical degree from Łodz Medical College, Poland, in 1970 and a Master of Science from Royal Tropical Institute, Amsterdam, in 1977. In 1982 he received a fellowship to study administration and health planning at North Carolina State University in the U.S. He has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals on Guinea worm, river blindness, trachoma, and a variety of communicable diseases.

As program coordinator for Sudan's Ministry of Health in 1995, Nabil was a key figure in the historic "Guinea worm cease-fire" during Sudan's long civil war. The truce, negotiated by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, allowed health agents in conflict zones to treat not only Guinea worm, but also other diseases, including river blindness. Nabil recalls feeling awed while hosting a delegation of Carter Center leaders.

  • Nabil and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in March 2002 during an annual Guinea worm eradication gathering held in Khartoum. (Photo: The Carter Center)

"I will never forget the day that I had to accompany President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, on their trip to Juba to establish a proper Guinea Worm eradication program in South Sudan," he said. "In that day I felt the great responsibility I was shouldering and realized I had no way to escape."

Ross Cox, who worked with Nabil in the mid-1990s when Cox was with the CDC, said Nabil was able to bridge the political gulf between the north and the south because many of the people whowere serving as the de facto government in the South were former colleagues and friends of his.

"His integrity and humanity made it possible for him to transcend the situation," Cox said.

  • Nabil (center, seated) oversaw the interruption of river blindness transmission in Sudan’s vast and remote Abu Hamad area in 2012. ( Photo: The Carter Center/ M. Katabarwa)

Nabil became the Carter Center's Sudan country director in 2007. Dr. Donald R. Hopkins, former vice president of the Center's health programs and now its special advisor on Guinea worm eradication, first met him in 1994.

"From the beginning, Dr. Nabil was focused on doing what was necessary to stop Guinea worm disease," Hopkins said. "His dedication and effectiveness were respected by Sudanese and international health workers on all sides of the civil war."

The war came to an end, but Nabil soldiers on, preparing the next generation.

"Dr. Nabil motivates and supports his employees, and he inspires us during difficult times," said his deputy country director, Maymoona El Tayeb. "Whatever I can say will never express the amount of gratitude that I owe to Dr. Nabil."

Learn more about the Center's work in Sudan »