Bruce Aylward is a Canadian physician and epidemiologist by training. He is an Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). He is also the team lead of the WHO-China joint mission on COVID-19. Dr. Bruce Aylward is an expert on infectious diseases and has a long history of working in large-scale infectious disease and public health outbreaks and humanitarian emergencies.
Bruce Aylward was born in 1962 (age 58 years; as in 2020) in St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada. Aylward grew up in Atlantic Canada. He studied medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). By 1984, Aylward had decided to become a surgeon and went to Uganda through a school program where he worked in a hospital for six months. He received his MD from Memorial University in 1985. After graduation, he studied internal medicine at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Thereafter, he received a diploma in tropical medicine from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicin. Later, he pursued a master’s degree in public health at John Hopkins University.
Height (approx.): 5′ 10″
Hair Color: Extra Light Ash Blond
Eye Color: Moss Green
Family & Ethnicity
Bruce Aylward was raised by a Haligonian woman and her lawyer husband; he was one of the six children raised by them. Bruce Aylward is married to Elisa Rapiti who is an Italian cancer researcher. Their marriage took place in Geneva. Dr. Aylward met Elisa Rapiti at Johns Hopkins. The couple lives in Geneva with their son, Nico, who was born in 2000.
In 1992, Bruce Aylward joined the World Health Organization (WHO) and led its various programs, such as communicable disease control, immunization, and polio eradication in various countries, including the Western Pacific, Middle East, Europe, Central and Southeast Asia, and North Africa.
In 1993, when the global polio eradication campaign was in its fifth year, Dr. Aylward landed in Phnom Penh where his job was to organize Cambodia’s first mass immunization campaign. While talking about Aylward, Chris Maher, a WHO epidemiologist who worked with Aylward in Phnom Penh, says,
Cambodia was a pretty messed up place. So many people had been killed by the Khmer Rouge and it was still a very active conflict. Aylward showed up in Cambodia and hit the ground “running around all over the place.” He’s like the Energizer Bunny. Someone presses the on button and he just rattles around until the batteries run out. He’s very capable of working very, very long hours in a day, and still producing quality work.”
In 1998, when the WHO asked Aylward to return to Geneva and give his contribution to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which was being spearheaded by the UN health agency, along with UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Rotary International; Aylward agreed on his own terms. While talking about it in an interview, Aylward said,
There was no way the world was going to stop transmission by the end of 2000. But you know, you couldn’t say that. My goal was to make sure that by the year 2000 every country in the world had started eradication programs.”
Dr. Aylward successfully led the polio eradication campaign, and in 1999, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo became the last countries to join the polio fight. To make the polio eradication program a success, he expanded his staff in Geneva from four people to dozens, and his field team was ballooned from about 80 to 2,500 members. Over the decades, with his pragmatic approach, Dr. Aylward and his team brought polio to its knees. On the fight against polio, Dr. Aylward says,
It’s about equity. It’s about social justice and making sure every kid’s got a better shot at a better future. The day you walk away is the day you say some kids aren’t worth it.”
From 2013 to 2015, he worked with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to lead a newly established Change Management Unit, and prior to it, he had led the inter-agency process that resulted in the first-ever system-wide activation procedures for major infectious disease emergencies.
While serving as Special Representative of the Director-General for the Ebola Response (from September 2014 through July 2016), he provided strategic and technical leadership to the United Nations Emergency Ebola Response (UNMEER).
While working with the WHO’s preparedness, readiness, and response to humanitarian emergencies (from 2011 through 2016), Dr. Aylward managed a comprehensive restructuring of WHO’s work in humanitarian emergencies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bruce Aylward led the WHO’s team in China.
While talking about the COVID-19 in an interview, Dr. Bruce Aylward said,
Never, never underestimate a new disease, there’s just too much unknown. What we do know is it will kill young people, it will make young people sick in large numbers. You’ve gotta respect this.”
Taiwan Skype Interview Controversy
On March 28, 2020, during an interview through Skype with the Journalist Yvonne Tong of Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), he dodged the question about Taiwan’s membership at the WHO. When the journalist tried to repeat the question, he asked her to move on and terminated the call. When the journalist called him back, he formally ended the interview. Following the interview, Dr. Aylward and the WHO faced allegations of Chinese government influence from across the globe, and the WHO was accused of “carrying China’s water.”
Summoned by the Canadian Parliament
In April 2020, Dr.Bruce Aylward received a summon from the health committee of the Parliament of Canada to mark his attendance at Ottawa. The Commons health committee of the Parliament of Canada unanimously voted to call Dr. Aylward to appear before the committee. While talking about it, NDP health critic Don Davies said,
Clearly he has been willing, and the WHO has been willing, to make Dr. Aylward available to answer questions to the media so I don’t see any principled reason why they would not make [him] available to this committee to answer similar questions.”
Awards & Honors
- The Globe and Mail and the Dominion Institute recognized him as one of Canada’s Nation Builders of 2002.
- In 2002, Dr. Aylward became the first winner of the Memorial University Alumni Award for Outstanding Professional Achievement.
- He credits Dr. Ian Bowmer, former dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Memorial University of Newfoundland, with getting him interested in infectious diseases.
- He dated his Italian girlfriend, Elisa Rapiti, for years in at least 20 different countries before getting married to her.
- While leading the worldwide polio eradication campaign, Dr. Aylward incorporated many novel initiatives, including young MBA graduates and communications specialists. He also brought on boards many major funders, like the Gates Foundation and the UN Foundation.
- Dr. Aylward brought the most substantive reform in the WHO’s 68-year history when he led the design and implementation of far-reaching reforms of WHO’s work in emergencies (from December 2015 through July 2016), which culminated in the launch of a new WHO Health Emergencies Programme.
- Apart from being a physician and epidemiologist, Dr. Bruce Aylward has authored over 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles and book chapters.
- During his stint with the Ebola response, his speech at TEDx became very popular.
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was Bruce Aylward who had opined the idea of “isolation, contact tracing, and testing” to contain the spread of the COVID-19.