Meet The Union Board: Prof Xiaolin Wei, Secretary General

Meet The Union Board: Prof Xiaolin Wei, Secretary General

As part of our Meet the Board series, in which we interview members of The Union’s Board of Directors, we talk to the Secretary General, Prof. Xiaolin Wei.

In addition to serving The Union as Secretary General, Xiaolin works as an Associate Professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in the University of Toronto and before that taught in the School of Public Health and Primary Care in the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He researches health delivery issues in primary care settings, including tuberculosis, tobacco control, hypertension, diabetes, and inappropriate use of antibiotics. He served as the Chair of The Union's Tobacco Control Section from 2013-2015.  He also holds an honorary associate professorship at the University of Leeds, where he studied the area of TB for five years in the Nuffield Centre.  He has published over 70 papers in international peer reviewed journals and four textbook chapters.

The devastation that TB has caused historically and, particularly over the last 100 years, has been the motivation behind Xiaolin’s intense work in this area both as a doctor and researcher.

Attending a Union conference in Paris in 2005 opened his eyes to The Union being ‘the central professional body of pulmonary TB professionals and public health work’.

He became actively involved very quickly and now, 11 years later as the Secretary General of the Board of Directors, he supervises the implementation of decisions taken and is responsible for Board meetings, Bureau minutes and correspondence.

It’s a busy role alongside his other commitments and his research [not to mention that he’s also on the publishing committee of the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (IJTLD), The Union’s most widely known and read scientific communication] but it is one that he feels is vital, not only in terms of the governance of The Union but in terms of getting the work of The Union known to as many people as possible.

He is committed to ensuring that membership of The Union increases but that those who join, alongside existing members, feel a sense of ownership for the work undertaken by The Union. He wants them, he says, to feel that they are part of a global family.

“Increasing our members will make us more productive and interactive which will enable us to continue to lead the way in scientific development in areas of TB, tobacco control, COPD and lung disease and also in policy development, as we have just seen with WHO’s adoption of the shortened MDR-TB treatment regimen,” he says.

It is for this reason that he is also a big advocate of the regional conferences and aims to give his support wherever he can. Earlier this year he attended the 3rd Conference of The Union, South East Asian Region (SEAR), in the historic city of Kathmandu, Nepal. And he makes no bones about shouting as loud as he can about what an achievement it was holding a conference in that area along with the importance and impact regional conferences can have generally.

Xiaolin says: “It was a massive effort and a great success of Nepal Anti Tuberculosis Association (NATA) to hold a conference in Kathmandu. The earthquake two years ago was devastating and many people are still displaced and continue living in tents,” he says.  “There are very limited financial resources for NATA while it has to overcome the paramount logistic challenge as well. A year ago, it was suggested that a regional meeting instead of a conference would be the way forward.  But in the end NATA decided to continue to host it as a conference. “I congratulate Mr. Devendra Bahadur Pradhan, the President of NATA, and all other organising committee members in successfully hosting the conference, in such a challenging situation.”

Hundreds of delegates met to to share the latest research, discuss regional approaches to reduce the burden of TB and lung disease, meet with other professionals in the field, and ultimately formulate new strategies and inspire progress towards a common goal of prevention in the region.

The resulting conference, Xiaolin says, is one that created an excellent platform for communications among members in a geographically widespread region but also for attracting new members. In addition the Nepal Government, which sent a delegation in the form of the Vice President along with its Minister for Health and other senior officials, has committed to work towards a TB and tobacco free society in Nepal.

As well as being a supporter of the regional conferences, Xiaolin also makes it his mission to champion tobacco control wherever and whenever he can. A TB free society is of course something he wants to see but he has an equally strong desire to see a tobacco free society.

He appreciates this is an intrepid move forward: “We are working towards both a TB free society and tobacco free society. We haven’t always been as bold to make that statement. It was only two years ago that this, as a strategy in tackling TB, was published. It was a bold move and one that is very challenging,” he admits.

“We need to mobilise a lot of resources and we need the techniques and technology. There are lots of challenges regarding treatment regimens, vaccines and diagnoses but one of the biggest challenges is getting the research put into practice. You have to persevere with your research, work closely with patients, practitioners and policy makers to achieve getting your work put into practice and policy change.  Operational research has not been accepted as a norm in traditional academic setting. Currently, there is still a huge distance between the universities and the poorer villages where the TB patients live.”

Despite facing these barriers, Xiaolin is positive about the developments that have been made in recent years and the difference that The Union’s work is making, particularly in the area of Operational Research under the leadership of Prof Anthony Harries. He cites his first ever involvement with Operational Research 10 years ago, which involved decentralising TB units in China, as an example of how you can create change and make a difference to individual lives.

He recalls:  “We visited several TB centres in China, they were only located in the county centres but below the county centres were the townships which faced many difficulties in treating TB.  For example there was often no direct road to the county treatment centres. So we decentralised the TB service to the township hospitals, trained the doctors in TB care, issued TB reporting cards and set up laboratory systems between the county and townships to make sure the sputum sample testing was quality assured. We identified the problems and solved them.”

It’s clear that Xiaolin takes his role as Secretary General and the governance of The Union extremely seriously. But for him it is more than just meetings, minutes and agendas. It’s about the commitment of the people who are members of The Union and who want to make a difference.  “There are so many people who devote lots of their time, including their free time to The Union,” he says. “That level of devotion surprised me at first but now I realise how effective it can be.”

It is with this in mind that Xiaolin is determined to carry on being an advocate for the work of The Union for a long time to come whether that’s from Leeds or China, Kathmandu or Canada.