Harvard Public Health Review Winter 2007
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Roland Matsouaka

Goodarz Danaei, SD 2010

Familial tendencies:
Both parents work in finance; his mother earned an MBA at the University of Maryland; wife Yasaman Mani is a medical electronics engineer

First impressions of Boston:
Never having been to the United States, he had expected the city (and the subway system, and the houses) to be more “modern”

First public health field experience:
After medical school, formed a non-governmental organization to educate high-school and university students about drug abuse

Ideal job:
“Working in public health as an academic researcher or policy maker—ideally both. I want to use scientific evidence for improving public health and reducing health inequalities.”

Ambassador for Health
Meshing health risks across countries

It’s a relatively straightforward question: How many lives could be spared by reducing risk factors for particular diseases around the world? The answers—and there are many—are not so simple, in part owing to the way researchers count.

“Previously, people have looked at one risk factor at a time, and each with a different method for measuring its effect,” says 2006 Goldsmith Fellow Goodarz Danaei, a first-year SD student in the departments of Population and International Health and Epidemiology who earned a master’s last spring. Because of this—because the “alcohol people use alcohol methods” and their numbers of attributed deaths are not directly comparable to those used by researchers on, say, smoking—it sometimes happens that if you add up deaths due to individual risk factors in an area, their numbers will exceed the total deaths there. Someone has been counting wrong.

So far at Harvard, Danaei has led two studies on risk factors for cancer and cardiovascular diseases that rely on work done by his advisor, Majid Ezzati, an associate professor of population and international health. In the early 2000s, Ezzati led an international team of researchers that developed standardized methods of comparing and analyzing studies from different countries as a way of converting data so that it meshes together.

“One beauty of what we’re doing is that we treat all risk factors the same with regard to methods,” says Danaei, who won a full-tuition Presidential Scholarship from Harvard to fund his SD work. Doing so could give policy makers a clearer view of how risk factors relate to each other, and perhaps help them better integrate prevention programs.

Danaei’s studies, which he has conducted as a research assistant at the Harvard Initiative for Global Health, use Ezzati’s innovative method. But the work is time-consuming. For his master’s thesis, Danaei gathered and analyzed blood-glucose data, which took him a year-and-a-half. His paper was published in the Lancet in November of 2006.

“This is the first time anyone has estimated how many deaths in different regions of the world and globally there are, at all levels of non-optimal blood glucose,” says Ezzati. He cites Danaei’s medical training as a major asset to this work.

Danaei, 32, grew up in Tehran, where, he says, he attended medical school after finishing first in a field of about 400,000 in the Iranian National University Entrance Examination. During hospital rotations, he became frustrated by seeing patients get treated for an ailment, only to return to the hospital the next week. “We weren’t dealing with the root of the problem,” he says. He decided to pursue public health.
After graduating in 2000, Danaei worked for Iran’s Ministry of Health and Medical Education, where he helped medical schools develop strategic plans. He also ran a business with friends, designing medical education software for universities on topics like doctor-patient communication and medical-history taking.

In 2004, he moved with his wife to Boston on a single-entry visa. Because the U.S. government considers Iran a sponsor of terrorism, Iranians who enter the country get a visa that expires if they leave, even for a short trip. Danaei hasn’t yet settled on where he’ll live once he graduates. But more than likely, he’ll continue to do academic research using mathematical models to predict the spread of disease. “This work is answering exactly the kind of questions I’m interested in,” he says. “I’m not particularly interested in policy making just by itself. I like answering basic, useful questions.”

Katharine Dunn has reported on advances in science, medicine, and global health for publications that include the Boston Globe, Technology Review, and Harvard Magazine.

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