The lone crusader

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The life of Sheela Basrur, who died recently, is the stuff of which dreams are made.

Basrur, or Vasupura as it was called earlier, is a temple town on the banks of the Varahi, which flows into the southern coast of Karnataka. An important trading centre during the 16th and 17th centuries, it is a spiritual site for different religions today. Last month, this once historic port town assumed greater significance when one of its illustrious daughters, who made waves in far away Canada, received the prestigious Order of Ontario Award for her exceptional services in the field of public health.

Poignant presentation

What made the award all the more poignant was its presentation in the critical care ward of the Grand River Regional Cancer Cenre in Kitcher-Waterloo where the recipient — an eminent health professional — was bravely fighting a losing battle against a rare form of malignancy. Sheela Basrur’s life story is the stuff of which dreams are made.

As the chief guardian of public health in Ontario — she was the deputy minister for health — she transformed the State with her innovative and long lasting reforms, which ranged from anti-smoking laws to safe kitchens. She was instrumental in establishing the Smoke-Free Ontario Act in 2006 and a Toronto bye-law banning the use of toxic pesticides, both of which paved the way for a country wide movement to restore a smoke-free and clean environment.

Sheela Basrur was no speech making activist. She conducted comprehensive studies to eliminate toxic emissions from a power plant in Toronto. Her efforts resulted in the closing of the power plant. She could be ruthless when it came to citizens’ health. Her Safe Dining programme made it mandatory for all restaurants to display health inspection results on their windows and greater transparency in their services. She fixed smog warning systems to reduce health risks in the event of smog. She also developed a new national Air Quality Health Index to ensure that citizens breathed uncontaminated air. She fought for green spaces in the city of Toronto to enable more children to play outdoors in order to reduce child obesity. When she was Toronto’s chief medical officer in 1998, she campaigned tirelessly to reduce air pollution in that city, which hospitalised more than 5,000 people and resulted in 1000 deaths due to respiratory problems every year. Her concern for children who became the hapless victims of pollution resulted in the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment.

Turning point

2003 marked a turning point in Sheela Basrur’s career. It saw the outbreak of the dreaded SARS when hundreds of citizens developed respiratory problems. Some 300,000 people were quarantined. That same year, WHO declared a medical emergency in the State of Ontario and advised against travelling there. A sensational media added to people’s panic. The chief of medical services rose to the occasion, by first issuing orders to control the epidemic. She wrote to WHO to set the record straight by clarifying facts with accurate figures. She also briefed the scare-mongering press every day to prevent further damage, and reassured the citizens in public speeches. Her enormous efforts to restore confidence in the system did not go unrecognised. She was immediately promoted to cabinet rank to head the health services at the provincial level. Ironically, the person who crusaded tirelessly for public health herself became a victim to a malignancy that exploded in her body just as she was “approaching the half way mark” of her five-year term.

But, Canada did not fail to recognise a lone woman’s battle against so many public health hazards. The building that houses the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion, which she founded, is now called the Sheela Basrur Center. In April this year, “the woman from Basrur” received the highest honour in Ontario for her selfless and outstanding work in the field of public well being. “Her unique ability to distil complex medical issues at the time of distress brought much needed reassurance to the Canadian and international communities,” said Health Minister Tony Clement on the occasion.

Born to scientist parents — Vasanth Basrur of Bangalore is a radiation oncologist and Parvathy Nambiar from Cheravathur in neighbouring Kerala is a veterinary geneticist — Sheela returned to the land of her forefathers in 1983, after graduating from Toronto Medical School. She worked in the “obscure and dusty villages” of Maharashtra and Karnataka to understand the real meaning of public health. The hardship and suffering she saw in rural clinics taught her much more than the “dry and theoretical studies” she had experienced earlier.

Back in Canada, she enrolled into a community health programme and started working on public health projects. India put Sheela on a rollercoaster ride to fame and success until her death earlier this month, which left a big gap in Ontario’s public health services.

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