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Global health pioneer receives prestigious university award

24 April 2017
How a Sydney alumnus is improving world health

Recipient of the University of Sydney's President’s Award, alumnus Dr Colin Mathers talks to us about his exceptional contributions to world health.

Dr Colin Mathers

Dr Colin Mathers was one of the first to know that a girl born in Korea in 2030 is likely to have an average life expectancy of more than 90 years.

A scientist to his core, Colin is not inclined to gaze into a crystal ball, so how did he know this? His forecasts are based on thorough analysis of comprehensive population health data collected by his team at the World Health Organization (WHO), looking at death rates and causes of death in more than 100 countries.

It’s the first time life expectancy will crack the 90-year barrier, which is an astounding feat and a welcome surprise for many experts who never expected to see this happen.

With his vision for improving health outcomes across the world, Colin has led WHO’s work on global health statistics for more than 15 years as the Coordinator of its Mortality and Health Analysis Unit in Geneva. 

What drives me in my work is the wish to ensure that decision makers have the best possible information
Dr Colin Mathers

An alumni from the University of Sydney, Colin Mathers is being recognised for his work by being awarded the university’s President’s Award at the 2017 Alumni Awards. This award celebrates exceptional and sustained achievements made by alumni in their field of professional endeavour and/or their contribution to community.

Colin became interested in this work while studying for his doctorate in theoretical physics at the university. It was the 1970s, and debate was raging over the impact of nuclear power on our health.

“On one occasion I shared a public platform with a junior opposition parliamentarian, Paul Keating, later to become Prime Minister of Australia,” Colin says.

His first encounter with summary measures of health, which express large amounts of statistical information as simply as possible, came in 1989 when French demographer Jean-Marie Robine established the International Network on Health Expectancy, and Colin was asked to contribute.

“I had never heard of healthy life expectancy and I went to the library and randomly opened a volume of the WHO Bulletin,” he says. “It fell open at an article by Robine. Within a couple of hours, I had calculated healthy life expectancies for Australia from datasets I already had; the start of my involvement in international research in this area.”

World Health Organisation HQ in Geneva. Photo: Thorkild Tylleskar

Soon after starting his role at WHO in early 2000, Colin worked on the World Health Report, ranking various countries on the overall performance of their health systems. Its publication sparked huge media and political controversies, including the sacking of a high-ranking health minister.

“It was an intense, stressful and exciting period,” he says. “I worked 110 hours in the week before publication – not something I want to do often, but an unforgettable memory of mammoth effort to achieve a very influential outcome.”

Colin recalls a time when WHO member states, UNICEF, the World Bank and the United Nations Population Division published different statistics on child mortality.

“In part stimulated by a complaint from the UN Secretary General about this, I was instrumental in establishing an Interagency Group which now annually publishes child mortality statistics used by all four agencies,” he says. These statistics are now used by all UN agencies and recognised as the world standard.

“What drives me in my work is the wish to ensure that decision makers have the best possible information on all aspects of health in order to set priorities for funding and to monitor outcomes. Population health information is of hugely varying quality and availability, and notoriously biased for many reasons,” Colin says.

But part of his work is to bring these sources of information together, assess bias, adjust, and prepare comprehensive and unbiased overviews of specific diseases and risk factors in health loss.

“I am passionate about bringing together all the evidence to provide the best objective and unbiased picture of global health, in the face of many special interests, whether advocates for specific causes, industries who do not want to be held to account for unhealthy products, or national governments wanting to exaggerate their successes.”

Colin has played a key role in ensuring WHO’s ongoing leadership of the monitoring and reporting of global health progress – not an easy task given the limited data available in some parts of the world. This is part of his legacy, finding a way for agencies to work together and report as one voice, an achievement that is improving health outcomes for people around the world.