Ragheb Ali grew up on free school meals at one of the lowest performing public schools in the country and became a leading epidemiologist and OBE awardee. It is determined to improve the life outcomes of children from poor backgrounds so that they, too, can reach their full potential.
When I was five, in Bedford, my father lost his job. At about the same time, he began to lose his sight due to glaucoma. This meant that he was not able to work, which led to financial difficulties for the family.
My mom started working, and over the years that followed, I started taking evening classes in addition to running the house. She was not able to complete her university education in India before moving to the United Kingdom.
She was my inspiration. Even though I was young, I think I knew things were tough and the best thing I could do to help was do well in school – and that would be one less thing to worry about my parents.
I went to the school closest to where we live. Actually it was opposite our house. There were no league tables in those days, but I later found out that the school was in the lowest 5% of performance in the UK.
My parents were very encouraging – they always said I had to do my best. They discovered a government-assisted scheme to help children from poor families attend local private schools. You managed to get a place. And so, when I was 11, I had a better chance of reaching my full potential.
I helped some other local kids, who attended basic schools, with GCSEs and A levels. I knew they didn’t have the same chances as I did. I decided at school that I wanted to be a doctor. I knew I wanted to do something that would help others.
The chances of a kid like me, growing up on free school meals, going to Cambridge to study medicine were pretty much zero. I remember telling my father, who was in hospital at the time, that I didn’t think my interview in Cambridge was very good. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m praying for you to come in and I think you will.”
He was right. A letter came home a few weeks later. My parents opened it and then called the school. I remember being called outside the assembly to tell us the good news. I have always considered myself, not exceptional, but an exception.
Soon after becoming a doctor, I realized that many of my patients had illnesses that could have been prevented, or certainly delayed, if the risk factors had been dealt with earlier. This led me to epidemiology, which is the study of disease – what causes it and how to treat it – in populations.
Most of what we know about the causes and treatment of the disease is based on studies of European or European ancestry groups. I am particularly interested in researching chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer in the populations studied, eg people in the Middle East and South Asia and ethnic minorities in the UK.
The study of what I call “neglected groups” is important for scientific reasons but also for the sake of equality. We need this data to make sure we give people of all races the best possible chance of living a long, healthy life.
Risk factors can be biological, behavioral, genetic or socioeconomic, to name a few. It is important to understand the interaction between different factors and the relative contributions they make to the development of the disease.
In March 2020, I was asked to work with the government’s Racial Disparity Unit and the National Statistics Office to understand the relationship between race and COVID-19. We were concerned to see that people from most ethnic minorities were disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
There is a genetic component to the risk of death from COVID-19 in South Asia. However, our research suggested that the disparities in mortality are mainly due to the probability of infection in the first place rather than the outcome once infection. Socioeconomic factors that drive infection rates include people’s occupation, housing, family size (particularly if multigenerational) and where they live.
She has advocated addressing these risk factors for social injustice and poverty. Although I’m best known for my work on race, my research is increasingly driven by my desire to reduce socioeconomic inequalities—and these are what determine the big results in health.
The most disadvantaged people in the UK have the highest rates of all chronic diseases; The average life expectancy is ten years less. We’ve known about the impact of poverty on health since the “Black Report” more than 40 years ago, yet, across successive governments, little has changed. It is an indictment of our system.
I would like to see government working with individuals, families and communities at the local and national level to provide interventions, education and equal opportunity from an early age. This is critical otherwise the gap between the outcomes of children’s lives will grow more and more until it is difficult to close.
I was recently appointed Chief Medical Officer and Joint Chief Investigator for Our Health. We are working to prevent and delay disease across different populations in the UK by identifying individuals at risk and providing them with early interventions.
I know I am lucky; My life path could have been completely different. That’s why I’ve always had a strong desire to give back. During the pandemic, I returned to work in the emergency department on all fours to help my colleagues deal with COVID-19.
It meant increased danger to myself and my family. Not to mention using a different entryway, sleeping in the basement, taking off my scrubs when I got home and putting them straight in the washing machine, and, hardest of all, seeing a little of my family.
At this point my father was completely blind and very weak due to his lung condition but at least we could talk. After being on the ward, I’d wait two weeks to make sure there was little chance of getting past COVID-19 before going to see him. We were sitting in the garden, holding hands. Fortunately we were able to celebrate his 80th birthday in the summer. I’m grateful we got that time.
Unfortunately, my father did not live long enough to see me grant the OBE to the NHS and the COVID-19 response. But I know he would have been very proud.
Dr. Raghib Ali is a Senior Research Associate in Clinical Research in the Epidemiology Unit of the Medical Research Centre, and is the NHS Consultant in Acute Medicine and Chief Medical Officer of Our Future Health. He is a graduate of St. Catherine’s College.
Posted on October 19, 2022
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