smiling woman against a backdrop of bookshelves
smiling woman against a backdrop of bookshelves

WHO Scientist Mwele Malecela Dies at 59

Her achievements included developing a roadmap to tackle neglected tropical diseases.

Pradip Chatterjee

Pradip Chatterjee is a journalist from Kolkata, India who currently works for the Millennium Post.

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Mar 4, 2022

ABOVE: WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION

Mwele Malecela, the director of the World Health Organization’s Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases, died in Geneva on February 10, 2022, from complications relating to cancer, which she had been diagnosed with in 2019. She was 59.  

Malecela had held her WHO post since 2018. One of her key achievements was the development of a road map for preventing, controlling, or eliminating the 20 diseases and disease groups listed as neglected tropical diseases through 2030. Combined, these diseases affect 1.7 billion people worldwide, the WHO estimates. 

In an email to The Scientist, Ashok Moloo, an information officer in Malecela’s department, writes that in addition to leading the development and publication of the road map, the parasitologist was instrumental in raising the profile of neglected diseases globally. 

Born on March 26, 1963 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Malecela was the daughter of John Malecela, who would serve as the country’s prime minister from 1990–1994. She earned her bachelor’s in zoology at the University of Dar es Salaam, and joined the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) of Tanzania in 1987. At NIMR, she carried out studies on lymphatic filariasis, a parasitic disease that causes severe swelling, particularly in the legs. She went on to earn her master’s and PhD in parasitology from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine from 1990 to 1995. After that, she was appointed as the NIMR’s director of research coordination and promotion, and in 2000, she became the director of Tanzania’s national lymphatic filariasis program. In 2010, Malecela became the first woman to serve as the director general of the NIMR; she remained in that post until 2017. 

Malecela also served on an expert committee for the Mectizan Donation Program (MDP) from 2001–2004. MDP is an international initiative that works to eliminate river blindness and lymphatic filariasis.  

In 2017, Malecela started working as the regional director of the WHO’s Regional Office for Africa. The following year, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus appointed her to direct the Department of Control of NTDs. “An eloquent speaker, [Malecela’s] approach was characterized by passion and dedication to people and causes. Her preference for telling the truth over seeking to please earned her widespread respect,” the WHO says in a statement. “Throughout her life, she advocated for the empowerment of women, for gender equality and for the welfare of women and girls.”  

Jürg Utzinger, the director of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, writes in an email to The Scientist that, “Dr. Malecela fought tirelessly to develop new tools and innovative approaches to control and eliminate neglected tropical diseases that affect the poorest of the poor. She constantly went the extra mile.”  

Monique Wasunna, the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) Africa regional officer, who had known Malecela since the 1990s, tells The Scientist that, “I knew that Mwele was someone very special right from the beginning. She had such a keen intellect and was also so kind, such a beautiful soul. Mwele’s impact throughout her career came from a very pure desire to improve people’s lives.” Nathalie Strub-Wourgaft, a former DNDi Director of NTDs, tells The Scientist in an email that, “NTDs are all about poverty. It’s about people suffering and dying silently. We needed a charismatic leader to speak for the voiceless. Dr Malecela was this leader.” 

“We have lost a wonderful friend, a true role model for a future generation of African global health specialists and a strong partner with whom we had the privilege to collaborate for over 40 years,” Utzinger tells The Scientist

The Coalition for Operational Research on Neglected Tropical Diseases awarded Malecela with the Kyelem Prize in 2017. The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine awarded her an honorary doctorate in 2021. Her name featured several times on Avance Media’s list of the top 100 most influential women in Africa.