Healthy Europe spoke to Dineke Zeegers Paget about her 25 years as Executive Director of the European Public Health Association, why health is a human right and what plans she has for the future.
Interview: Dietmar Schobel
Dineke, in July you stepped down after 25 years as Executive Director of the European Public Health Association (EUPHA), the umbrella organisation for national public health associations and institutes in Europe, and you were succeeded by Marieke Verschuuren. So this is a good time to take a look back. Could we start by asking what academic path you took and what was your motivation?
Dineke Zeegers Paget: I studied law in my native country, the Netherlands, at the University of Groningen. It is a wide-ranging and interesting course of studies that opens up all kinds of career possibilities. And I imagine I also opted for that because I have a very strong sense of justice. By this I mean justice for everyone, as defined by the United Nations in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A key part of this is that all people have a right to health. In my third year of studies, I specialised in health law. This was in part because I come from a family of medical professionals. My father was a dentist, my brother is also a dentist, and his wife is an acupuncturist. And my sister and her husband are both pharmacists.
What were the most important positions you held in the course of your career?
Dineke Zeegers Paget: My career began at the height of the AIDS/HIV pandemic. Starting in 1988, I was a junior officer at the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, where my work involved dealing with legal questions regarding HIV/AIDS patients. From 1990, I was a researcher on human rights, law and HIV/AIDS in the Department of Social Medicine at the University of Groningen. My dissertation, which I completed in 1996, also focussed on a comparison of AIDS legislation throughout the world. In 1992, I moved to Berne with my husband and worked for eight years as a coordinator of AIDS projects at the Swiss Federal Ministry of Public Health. Among other things, we set up needle and syringe exchange programmes throughout the country to stop the spread of AIDS among drug addicts, and we organised meetings in prisons explaining how to prevent AIDS. In 1997, I was appointed by the EUPHA Executive Council to work – from Switzerland – as Executive Director for the European Public Health Association (EUPHA) in addition to the above position. To begin with, this was only one day a week and it was quite a challenge given that my three children were still small at that stage. But it was certainly a very good way to gradually become more and more involved in EUPHA’s work. In 2000, the whole family relocated to the Netherlands and my EUPHA workload slowly increased, first to two days a week at the Netherlands School of Public Health and, from 2002, to a full-time position at NIVEL, the Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research.
How has EUPHA evolved since its earliest days?
Dineke Zeegers Paget: EUPHA was set up in 1992 as an initiative by 15 public health associations and institutes from 12 countries in Europe, and it now has 85 members from 47 countries. The European Journal of Public Health is published by EUPHA and produced by Oxford University Press on EUPHA’s behalf. The association has also organised annual scientific conferences since the year it was founded. The first one was held in Paris in 1992. The conferences have since grown from 200 to over 2,000 participants. While the main focus was originally on the purely scientific aspects of public health, this has gradually shifted more and more towards social and political aspects. This can also be seen in EUPHA’s strategy for the years 2020 to 2025, which is called “Achieving a triple A rating for health in Europe”. The three As stand for Analysis, Advocacy and Action. This refers to the fact that:
* We take the scientific evidence gained from analysis as our starting point
* We are advocates when dealing with politicians, decision-makers and citizens
* We ensure that the action needed to improve the general health of the population is ultimately derived from existing research findings.
The EUPHA team, which originally consisted only of me, is now made up of seven people. One of these works in our Brussels office, mainly so that we can work together more directly and more closely with the decision-makers of the European Union and discuss things with them at length.
How would you like to see EUPHA develop in the future?
Dineke Zeegers Paget: I would like to see the European Public Health Association continue to play an important role in public health research, policymaking and practice in Europe. I would like us to continue to be appreciated by our cooperation partners and to have solid financing that is guaranteed over a long period of time.
We must constantly try to think outside the box and come up with new and creative ideas.DINEKE ZEEGERS PAGET, STRATEGIC ADVISOR FOR THE EUROPEAN PUBLIC HEALTH ASSOCIATION
What does public health mean for you?
Dineke Zeegers Paget: Public health is a science that covers a very wide range of areas and has many subdisciplines – with a great need for collaboration between these as well. Besides this, the research findings of this science are extremely relevant for society and it is up to us to stand up and communicate these to the general public in a clear and accessible way. And of course, public health is also a field in which we must constantly try to think outside the box and come up with new and creative ideas.
What would you wish for yourself personally?
Dineke Zeegers Paget: I was diagnosed with cancer in 2015 and that means first and foremost being afraid that you will die. After long and exhausting treatments and three relapses, the disease can come back at any moment, so I hope more than anything else that I will stay healthy. The repercussions of my battle against cancer also prompted me to reduce my weekly working hours to between 16 and 20 hours a week. Ultimately, it was time to pass on the mantle of Executive Director of EUPHA to someone else. I will still be working as a strategic advisor for 10 hours a week and am very happy to remain a member of the EUPHA family. And I will take the best possible care of myself and my health. One thing I find helpful in this regard is mindfulness training, a method for meditating and increasing awareness. And of course going on long walks with Gio, the dog that my husband and I have had for the last six years.