Detroit official goes to bat for public health

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

The son of Egyptian immigrants, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed recognized early on that privileges afforded to him in life were not often shared.

The 31-year-old grew up in the Oakland County suburbs, attending middle and high school in Bloomfield Hills. And while spending his summers with relatives in Egypt, El-Sayed was always struck by the parallels between the poverty he observed there, 5,000 miles away, and back in Detroit.

He began medical school with hopes of becoming a surgeon in sub-Saharan Africa to address disparities in health that mark the globe. But his concern over health challenges faced by minorities and stigmatized populations guided him instead to a broader focus on public health.

El-Sayed stepped in last fall as Detroit’s new health director, taking a stand against what he perceives as a long-standing “assault on public health” in the city.

“A lot of the privileges in my life have been because I was given great educational opportunities and that my public health was taken care of,” El-Sayed said. “The work of making sure that every kid in Detroit has that kind of opportunity that I had, that’s what brings me to the table every day.”

Appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan in September to the $165,000 a year post, El-Sayed is tasked with overseeing Detroit’s health-related issues and services.

He’s quickly emerged as an advocate for social justice in Detroit, stepping out front in opposition of Marathon Petroleum’s request for permit changes that would allow it to increase emissions in the city, overhauling the city’s troubled animal control office and demanding a safe learning environment for city schoolchildren.

With El-Sayed’s arrival comes a strong position from the administration on environmental issues for the first time in at least two decades, says Guy Williams, president and CEO of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.

“It seems evident that the mayor is responsive to the leadership of Dr. El-Sayed,” Williams said. “He has definitely made a major impact for the good.”

In his first major act, El-Sayed initiated a management shakeup within the troubled Detroit Animal Control office and demanded new protocols. The changes came amid scrutiny over the office’s kill rate and claims of unsanitary conditions, unreasonable policies and exorbitant fees.

“The facility was in terrible shape and some of the practices were, frankly, inappropriate,” said El-Sayed, noting the control office has since partnered with area rescues to get more animals adopted, updated payment technology and instituted a new volunteer program.

In December, the administration appointed Melissa Miller, formerly of the Humane Society of the United States, to take over for longtime director Harry Ward. Over a one-month period, efforts to shift some of its animals to sheltering groups dropped the average monthly euthanasia rate at the center from 78 percent to 28 percent, he said.

“Our system was, in many ways, broken. Both in terms of the way that we brought dogs in, we sheltered dogs, we paid and took care of the dogs with us,” he said. “All of those things needed to be rethought and they are being rethought actively.”

Picking pollution fight

El-Sayed has also earned praise for his public stance on Marathon’s controversial plan to increase refinery emissions in southwest Detroit. He opposed the permit request, saying it “will set a dangerous precedent ... in a city that disproportionately suffers the health consequences of pollution.”

El-Sayed noted Detroit has a 50 percent higher rate of asthma than the rest of the state. The city’s 48217 ZIP code, he added, is the most polluted in Michigan.

“People have been submitting stories to us about their experience with living in that ZIP code, and they are heartbreaking,” he said. “You don’t want people having to wear a surgical mask to fall asleep or having to suffer with their child in an emergency room with an asthma exacerbation that could potentially end their life. That’s terrible.”

El-Sayed is internationally recognized as an expert in the social determinants of health, health disparities, preterm birth and infant mortality and obesity. As an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, El-Sayed earned degrees in political science and biology, and was a member of the UM’s men’s lacrosse team and the Muslim Students’ Association.

As his interest in public health grew, El-Sayed said he connected with professor Dr. Sandro Galea who became a central mentor. Initially, his request to take on public health research alongside Galea was turned down. But El-Sayed persisted, and it paid off.

“It was a testament to his enthusiasm,” said Galea, now dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, who worked with El-Sayed through his medical schooling and doctoral program. “I agreed to work with him because I believed he was dedicated and interested.”

The two have worked jointly on writings about the health of Arab-Americans in the United States and the social factors that shape health, including poverty, discrimination, income and other social conditions.

Widely traveled

After UM, El-Sayed was selected to study at England’s Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar where he earned a doctorate. He then earned a medical degree at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and a doctorate in public health.

Before returning to Detroit, El-Sayed served as a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia.

In recent weeks, El-Sayed’s office has been among those handling ongoing inspections of Detroit Public Schools buildings that warrant a health review, and threatening shut downs if repairs aren’t made.

“Schools are the one place that we willingly concentrate our children for most of the day, most of the year,” he said. “If we can’t keep them healthy and safe there, well, then, it tells us something about our capacity to keep them healthy and safe anywhere.”

Besides the urgent issues, El-Sayed says there will be a focus this year on efforts to lessen the city’s infant mortality rate in part through additional medical support programming and safe sleep education. He also hopes to tackle chronic disease and obesity.

“We want to make life here better for everybody, and we think we can do that,” he said. “No problem is unsolvable.”