Epidemiologist. Academic. Mayor of Cali, Colombia (twice). And, most recently, the inaugural winner of the Roux Prize. This is the highly accomplished and inventive Rodrigo Guerrero, M.D., Ph.D.
Created by David and Barbara Roux, the annual Roux Prize rewards people like Guerrero: innovative thinkers and doers who are using data on global health trends — from malaria, to maternal health, to heart attacks, to automobile accidents — to change lives in their communities.
“I am a strong believer that education in the hands of the community is a powerful thing,” says Guerrero. And that’s exactly what the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study is intended to do: make health evidence available to all. A mammoth and constantly refreshed record of worldwide health trends, and a global collaboration effort led by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, the GBD provides the findings that allow policymakers to use scarce health resources wisely. It’s not surprising that the inaugural Roux Prize was given to Guerrero: he and IHME share a strong belief in data’s ability to solve nearly intractable problems.
When Guerrero first became mayor of Cali, Colombia, in 1992, the epidemiologist immediately began to quantify Cali’s high murder rate. He and his colleagues realized early on that drug-related violence, assumed to be the cause of the murder rate, was not the sole reason for the deaths. Rather, it was a volatile cultural mixture. His team tracked who was committing the murders (young men), their timing (certain holidays and payroll Fridays), and the place (often in parks and other public spaces).
“People have money in their pockets, they go out and drink, and there is an epidemic of death,” Guerrero says. Once they understood the cause of the murder rate, he and his administration engaged the community in understanding the connection between drinking and violence, and they instituted laws that reduced it. But subsequent mayors did not enforce these laws or study the data as rigorously as Guerrero did. Several administrations later, in 2011, Guerrero was re-elected as mayor of Cali and is now re-addressing the city’s problem with violence. In doing so, the epidemiologist has another tool at his disposal: information from the GBD. “I’m benefiting from the data that the global forum has made available to preach the need for the prevention of violence,” Guerrero says.
The mayor isn’t just crunching numbers — he and his staff are creating infrastructure that will improve population health. To make parks safer and more welcoming, encouraging physical activity by families and neighborhood residents, Guerrero’s administration is planting trees, improving playing fields and installing lights in parks.
Now that the homicide rate is once again dropping in Cali, Guerrero is turning his attention to other public health problems. “Complications of chronic diseases, hypertension, diabetes — hospitals are flooded with these,” he says. “These are diseases that can be prevented by education, opportunities, changing eating habits. I see the future of public health in Cali moving in this direction.”