Using Leeds knowledge to save lives

Poison Information Coordinator Sherika Whitelocke-Ballingsingh (MPh Public Health 2016) has received international recognition for her work to prevent lead poisoning in children across Jamaica.

“Lead exposure can have devastating consequences for children,” Sherika said.

At low levels of exposure lead poisoning can affect child brain development. At high levels, lead attacks the brain and central nervous system and can result in death.

But thanks to Sherika, the threat to children in Jamaica has reduced. “The standards we have put in place to determine lead quantities in paint and help alleviate issues, such as informal battery smelting, affect the entire population of the country.”

When Sherika came to Leeds on a Chevening Scholarship – a competitive, fully-funded scholarship to undertake a master’s course at any UK university – her work to improve public health in Jamaica concentrated upon local impact. “But Leeds shifted my thinking,” she said. “I realised I needed to look nationally and internationally to truly make a difference. My time at Leeds equipped me with the skills to do so.”

The resulting collaboration with the United Nations (UN), International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has seen Sherika gain recognition as a global finalist in the Study UK Alumni Awards.

Sherika is motivated by her early experiences in the field. She started out as a public health inspector in low income communities, seeing first-hand the impact of lead exposure.

“It is not a new issue in Jamaica – but it simply hasn’t been discussed enough in the past.

“Jamaica’s informal battery smelting industry (the refurbishment of old car batteries), use of mined lands and lead paints are key causes. The resultant exposure poses a serious public health challenge and a huge economic burden to the country.”

Sherika visited schools and smaller communities in her role for the Caribbean Poison Information Network at the University of Technology, Jamaica, aiming to raise awareness and advise, but knew she needed more knowledge to effect larger scale change. She studied alongside her work, undertaking a course in environmental management, before applying for the Chevening Scholarship in 2015 and gaining a place at Leeds.

“Leeds changed everything for me. I loved the friendliness of the people and the beauty of the countryside.

“But on top of that, the curriculum was inspiring – we learnt about models to manage a country-wide health system, how you manage a healthcare facility and forge partnerships in the community to achieve health goals. I suddenly had the resources, global experts, and student support to climb to the next level of my career journey.

“We had a number of problems in Jamaica, including inadequate public awareness and an absence of policy and legislation. When I returned, I was determined to put what I had learnt into practice to address these issues.”

Sherika lobbied the government to do more to protect people from lead poisoning. She spoke at press conferences about impact and solutions, and was soon contacted by others around the globe to discuss the issue. This led to partnerships with the UN and WHO. She joined IPEN, learning how to “create dialogue at an international level”, advocating for government programmes, greater monitoring of children and environmental sampling.

As Sherika described it: “By elevating local problems to global discussions, I helped to ensure national impact. It’s important to then push locally to ensure policy makers adhere to the schemes they sign up to.

“I’d advise any fellow Leeds graduates not to take your Leeds knowledge for granted and to apply it practically to make an impact.”

For Sherika, her greatest achievement to date has been the implementation of a regulatory framework for lead paint in Jamaica – a move that would also help her gain international recognition as a global finalist in the Study UK Alumni Awards. “It’s something tangible which has been placed in law, a compulsory standard which will protect 2.9 million people. We’re not finished, but it was pleasing to see that outcome.”

Sherika plans to continue to advocate and apply her experiences to effect change in Jamaica and across the world. As she sees it, it is a responsibility to those communities she worked with at the start of her career.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to gain knowledge that can make a difference. Therefore, I have a responsibility to help those who cannot access that knowledge.

“The more I get given in life, the more I feel I should give back.”

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