Dr. Paula Fujiwara receives award for TB work

A woman stands at a podium

Paula Fujiwara. courtesy of The Union/Kurt Rebry

Dr. Paula Fujiwara became the first Japanese American to receive the Princess Chichibu Memorial Tuberculosis Award at the 54th Union Conference on Lung Health in Paris Nov. 18, a Japan Anti-Tuberculosis Association and International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease statement said. Fujiwara, who has dedicated more than 30 years to the global tuberculosis response, was surprised by the honor.

“The whole global tuberculosis community knows about this award. It is something that’s awarded every year and because I was staff of The Union … I was not eligible, so I never thought about getting this award,” Fujiwara said in a phone interview with the Nichi Bei News.

According to the statement, the award, which comes with $10,000, was “established in 1998 by the Japan Anti-Tuberculosis Association, to honor Princess Chichibu, who became an advocate for anti-TB programs in Japan after the disease killed her husband, Prince Chichibu, in 1953.”

Tuberculosis is an infectious disease that most often affects the lungs and is caused by a type of bacteria. It spreads through the air when infected people cough, sneeze or spit, according to the World Health Organization.

The Sansei worked at The Union for two decades, serving as their scientific director and the Department of TB and HIV director, among other positions. She left the organization in 2021 and is currently an independent consultant. She is the chair of a Stop TB Partnership task force and a scientific advisor for the Asia Pacific Cities Alliance for Health & Development.

After she left The Union in 2021, its board nominated her for the award.

Fujiwara has “made an incredible contribution to ending TB across the globe. We at The Union are all very proud of her achievements,” Guy Marks, The Union’s president and interim executive director, said in a statement.

While visiting her family’s village in Japan, Fujiwara discovered that some of her relatives had died of tuberculosis in the 1930s. She added that, “this was at a time where there was no treatment for tuberculosis.”

Both sides of her family were incarcerated in the Tule Lake Segregation Center in California during World War II, the JATA and Union statement said. Fujiwara, who was born in Sacramento, Calif., resides in San Francisco.

Fujiwara graduated from the University of California, Davis receiving a bachelor’s of science in genetics and her Doctor of Medicine. She received her master’s of public health from the University of California, Berkeley.

In the 1990s, she built relationships with people in Japan, particularly in Osaka and Tokyo, working with them on their tuberculosis problems when she was the director of the TB Control Program in New York City.

Fujiwara has worked in more than 40 countries around the world. She “know(s) everybody in the TB field and I guess I’m known too.” She is fluent in Spanish, French and intermediate Portuguese, having worked in Brazil and Spanish-speaking communities in Latin America.

“It’s really the people that have really brought me a lot of satisfaction because all of us have been so dedicated to a disease that doesn’t get a lot of attention…” Fujiwara stated.

Fujiwara met the late Karel Styblo, a Czech-Dutch physician, who was one of the most impactful people in the tuberculosis field. Styblo “developed a strategy…a simple system of recording results … that’s been expanded by the World Health Organization, so it’s something that we all use today.” She added, “he … really started it all for modern tuberculosis control.”

Reflecting on the challenges she has overcome in her career, Fujiwara said one stood out.

She went to New York City in 1992 as the country was facing a multidrug-resistant tuberculosis epidemic. At one point, she was in charge of the multidrug-resistant tuberculosis cases, which were the highest in the country. By the time she left the Bureau of Tuberculosis Control of the New York City Department of Health in 2000, they had almost eliminated the tuberculosis cases, she said.

She called it “the hardest job that I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding because we were actually able to control tuberculosis in the city.”

At the United Nations General Assembly this past September, world leaders committed to eliminating tuberculosis. The United Nation’s Stop TB Partnership, which collaborates with many tuberculosis communities, aims to mobilize $250 billion to end tuberculosis by 2030.

Fujiwara said experts need a better way to diagnose tuberculosis, better tuberculosis medications and vaccines.

Fujiwara said both COVID-19 and tuberculosis are “deadly disease(s)” and airborne. The coronavirus response took resources and medical professionals away from tuberculosis infections, she added.

Underscoring the importance of this work, Fujiwara said she thinks a new airborne pandemic is on the horizon.

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