Abdullatif Husseini, one of the world’s most influential public health researchers in 2019, highlights research interests and community-engagement efforts in short Q&A 

Recently, a study on citation metrics has recognized five Birzeit University professors and researchers as some of the most prolific and impactful in their fields, cementing the reputation of the university’s faculty and staff as leaders in their fields and active participants in the production of knowledge locally and internationally. 

In honor of this achievement, we are highlighting the academic and community-engagement efforts of each of the five researchers, beginning with Dr. Abdullatif Husseini, professor of public health and director of the Institute of Community and Public Health at Birzeit University. 

What follows is a short Q&A session with Husseini, in which we attempt to shine a spotlight on his research interests and activities, his role as director of the Institute of Community and Public Health, and his efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the National Epidemiology Committee, which provides advice and guidance to the Palestinian government. 

Q: Congratulations on being ranked as one of the most impactful researchers in public health in 2019. Could you please tell us more about your research interests? 

Husseini: Thank you! I mainly focus on non-communicable diseases. I do, however, shift priorities and focus more on communicable diseases when I feel that my research efforts could have an impact on controlling or containing communicable diseases in Palestine. In my research projects on non-communicable diseases, I tend to focus on diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, especially in Palestine and the region. In fact, my Ph.D. thesis revolved around comparing diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance rates in Kobar, a midsize village, and the old part of Ramallah, a major city, in an attempt to identify any risk factors associated with either rural or urban life in Palestine. 

Q: Is there a specific reason why you chose to focus on diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in particular? 

Husseini: Yes. Generally speaking, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are prevalent in Palestine and the Levant region. They are also co-morbid diseases, meaning that they occur or co-occur with other conditions, such as obesity. Most importantly, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are preventable to a large extent and, if present, manageable. We can raise awareness through campaigns and programs that educate people on the factors that lead to these diseases and contribute to providing a supportive environment for a healthy lifestyle. Additionally, for individuals suffering from such diseases, we can maintain a high standard of healthcare so that they can enjoy a high quality of life. 

We have cooperated in the past with researchers from eight universities in Palestine, Syria, Jordan, the UK, and Ireland on assessing the factors influencing diabetes and cardiovascular disease rates and creating a statistical model to estimate the development of both diseases. 

Q: This looks like a major research project. Did you or any of the institute’s staff face any difficulties in collaborating with international researchers from multiple countries? 

Husseini: Of course, there are challenges in any research project, especially one on this scale, but cooperation in research has been a principle guiding the efforts of the institute’s staff since its inception. Our researchers, most of whom joined the institute as students and pursued advanced education in their respective sub-fields, believe that teamwork and cooperation is an essential part of public health research and education, and engage in their research efforts accordingly. 

This interest in cooperation also carries over to our master’s program in public health, in which we train students to engage in teamwork and collaborate with their peers on research projects and studies. The master’s program focuses on knowledge production, aiming to equip students with the skills and knowledge to carry out collaborative research that positively impacts the quality of life locally in Palestine as well as regionally and internationally.  

Q: Speaking of cooperation, you’re currently part of the National Epidemiological Committee that provides advice to the Palestinian government on how to handle and control the COVID-19 pandemic. Could you please tell us more about the nature of your involvement in the board? 

Husseini: My participation in the pandemic advisory board is an extension of Birzeit University and the Institute of Public and Community Health’s community-engagement efforts. Our mission is not only to provide world-class education and training to our students, but also to use our research projects and expertise to improve health and wellbeing in communities near and far. 

As part of the advisory committee, I’ve cooperated with representatives of the Ministry of Health as well as governmental and civil-society institutions to draft plans and strategies and provide recommendations to help control the spread of the Coronavirus in Palestine. We monitor the situation on a continuous basis and change our plans and recommendations accordingly, taking into consideration the health, social, and economic aspects of each of our approaches. We also focus on disseminating information on the pandemic and countering rumors and misinformation. 

Q: Thank you for your efforts. Do you have any final recommendations or advice for our readers? 

Husseini: I think we all have a responsibility towards our community to follow the government’s guidelines and protocols, such as maintaining a safe distance between each other, wearing face masks in public areas, and avoiding gatherings. I also think that we should all — as individuals, officials, and civil-society institutions — join efforts to support society’s most vulnerable segments during this pandemic. Finally, we should be realistic in our assessment of the risk presented by COVID-19. It is a real threat — no one can deny that — but by consolidating our efforts, and following the prevention guidance and protocols, we can control and contain the disease.