Kristian Olson: Program Leader, Global Health Initiative

Utne Reader visionary

| November-December 2009

  • Kristian Olson

  • Kristian Olson

Some 4 million children, many of them with treatable diseases, die every year before they are 28 days old. Kristian Olson, program leader of the Global Health Initiative (GHI), is working to bring that number down in Indonesia, Ethiopia, and other low-income areas of the world by combining technological innovations with local customs. Death of newborns is not a geographic problem, Olson says; “it’s a disease of poverty and access.”

A recent GHI program in Aceh, Indonesia, trained more than 500 midwives to use a low-cost resuscitator to help prevent asphyxiation of newborns. The program’s “training of the trainer” method ensures that the work will continue after Olson leaves. GHI is also testing an affordable incubator that runs on old Toyota car parts, which are ubiquitous in rural areas around the world. 

Olson got inspired to do this work while he was helping rebuild Indonesia’s post-tsunami health infrastructure. Standing on a tree stump, struggling for cell phone reception, Olson found out that his wife was pregnant. She then gave birth to triplets. “If my wife was a rural woman, delivering where we were working,” Olson says, “[the triplets] almost certainly would have died.”


Kristian Olson’s life-saving work has begun to attract some serious attention. He was recently named one of the Scientific American’s 10 people “Guiding Science for Humanity,” and called “ ‘The Man’ when it comes to medical technology for developing countries” in an article for the Boston Globe. And the incubator made from old car parts was profiled in an article from the New York Times. You can hear Olson speak about the challenges and successes of fighting neonatal asphyxiation in a video on his organization’s website, and you can donate money to his organization through Causes on Facebook or the CIMIT website.

Read More:  50 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World .

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