Dr Wanda Walton: “Once I found my home in TB, I never wanted to leave it”

Dr Wanda Walton: “Once I found my home in TB, I never wanted to leave it”

At the 20th Conference of The Union North America Region in Denver, Colorado last month, Dr Wanda Walton received one of the region’s highest accolades – the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Dr Walton is Chief of the Communications, Education and Behavioral Studies Branch of the Division of Tuberculosis Elimination at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the award recognised her outstanding leadership in advocating for and addressing the educational needs of TB patients and the professional development of healthcare workers in this field. 

Known to her colleagues as ‘Wonder Woman’, Dr Walton is a tireless ambassador in the fight against TB. She joined the CDC in 1989 from the Georgia Department of Public Health at a time when a resurgence of TB had made it a critical public health issue in the United States.

Dr Walton was the first TB TB/HIV Health Education Specialist the CDC had ever appointed. 

“It felt like we were in a state of emergency,” she recalls. “There was a pressing need for good educational materials, and my mission was to provide training and tools for healthcare providers. But there was nothing for patients! So that had to change. We had a shoestring budget, so I used local clinics in Atlanta, talked with patients in the waiting room, and found out directly from them what their concerns were. Based on that research, we developed the Division of TB Elimination’s first patient brochures: TB: Get the Facts, The Connection between TB and HIV and Questions and Answers about TB.”

From that moment, Dr Walton’s ‘to do’ list increased exponentially. “I was then asked to give feedback on the training sessions for new staff members at the New York City TB Control Program under the leadership of Dr Tom Frieden. It seemed we had touched a nerve. . . .” 

This led to the development of the Self-Study Modules on Tuberculosis, a series that later won a Freddie Award, also known as the “Oscar of Medicine,” and which has been so well received that TB programmes worldwide continue to use, translate and adapt the materials to train new staff.

“I have the most interesting job. There is always something else to do, something that won’t wait. I love it,” says Walton. “I guess it’s unusual to stay in the same programme for so long but once I found my home in TB, I never wanted to leave it. My career has been a journey and I’m not there yet – as long as I feel I’m making a difference and a contribution, I’ll be carrying on.”

Dr Walton has been an active member of The Union since attending her first World Conference in 1998 in Bangkok. She has taught numerous post-graduate courses on human resource and education resource development at subsequent conferences.

She has also served on committees and working groups, including two World Health Organization (WHO) groups: the Global Workshop on Implementing the End TB Strategy (2015) and the Strategic and Technical Advisory Group for Tuberculosis (2010-2015). Her mantra, oft quoted, is simple but effective, “Efficient TB programmes are run by well-prepared staff."

Reflecting on the importance of Union membership, she says, “The Union is truly a catalyst for bringing us all – healthcare workers, scientists, interested parties – together. We learn from each other, we share, we collaborate. The Union conferences particularly have been a brilliant opportunity to learn from other programmes and professionals. I believe this disease will be stamped out because there are so many great people applying their minds to its elimination. 

“I’m thrilled to receive this Lifetime Achievement Award. There were tears in my eyes; it was a very touching moment. But I’ve still got that ‘to do’ list and, while I have that, I won’t be stopping yet.”


Photo: Dr Sundari Mase of the CDC presents the Union North America Region's Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr Wanda Walton