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Global health champion Paul Farmer dies at 62

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We have lost a shining light. That is one of scores of tributes pouring in today from global health experts around the world mourning the sudden death of Dr. Paul Farmer. He died at age 62 of an unspecified cause. Farmer was an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School and founded the charity Partners in Health. He helped bring lifesaving HIV/AIDS drugs to people in Haiti and opened hospitals in Haiti and Rwanda. But those who work with him say his legacy is even more sweeping than that. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Dr. Joe Rhatigan of Harvard Medical School first met Paul Farmer in the early 1990s, when the two of them were both medical residents. But he says Farmer quickly became a mentor.

JOE RHATIGAN: Oh, man. I mean, I think it's hard for a lot of people to appreciate just on how many dimensions Paul was, like, an exceptional person. You know, he really forced us to reckon with, you know, the disparities in health in the world.

AIZENMAN: Even as Farmer was studying for his medical degree, he essentially lived in Haiti amid extremely low-income farmers who didn't even have access to regular electricity, let alone health care. Farmer was determined to change that.

But Dr. Victor Dzau of the National Academy of Medicine says Farmer wasn't just trying to bring basic services. He wanted to bring in the most sophisticated treatments, including what were then cutting-edge HIV/AIDS drugs largely only available in wealthy countries.

VICTOR DZAU: Paul believed that you can bring best care to anybody by giving to the poor and underserved. There are a lot of people who thought it could not be done.

AIZENMAN: But Farmer came up with creative ways to make it work, enlisting local community health workers to provide care traditionally only offered by doctors. Over the years, Farmer proved enormously successful in spreading the word about his ideas, raising money and essentially starting a whole field of global health equity.

But Rhatigan says even as he rose to international prominence, Farmer remained just as attentive to his peasant farmer neighbors, including in Rwanda, where he was working just before he died. They'd often ask him to bring items back for them on trips to the United States.

RHATIGAN: Like an electric toothbrush or some little something that you can only get in the States. And, like, he would take that stuff just as seriously as he would take, you know, writing a letter to a head of state.

AIZENMAN: And it's this heart, this fundamental decency and love for others more than any of Farmer's achievements that his colleagues say they will miss the most.

Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.