The Good Doctor
Death threats are common, so are dangerous environments in Asia and Africa, where she works. There are some victories, many failures, lives saved and some lost. But Dr. Krisana Kraisintu of Thailand, the ‘Gypsy Pharmacist’ as she is popularly known, continues relentless. Her mission: to ensure affordable health care for all, which she considers a basic human right. “My life is dedicated to bringing about local pharmaceutical production by formulating and manufacturing affordable generic drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases to improve people’s heath,” she says.
A pharmaceutical scientist throughout her career, she has worked to help the sick, especially those infected with HIV and AIDS in Asia and in Africa, where access to medicine is often hampered. Winner of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the first generic version of the drug AZT (azidothymidine), for treatment of advanced HIV infection, was first produced in 1992 and completed in 1995 during her tenure as the Director of the Research and Development Institute at the Government Pharmaceutical Organization, where she was also the first top woman executive. But her struggle also involved challenging the-powers-that-be in the pharmaceutical industry.
She and her team later received world recognition when they created the first generic HIV "cocktail" drug known as GPO-VIR. It cuts treatment costs significantly and was endorsed by the World Health Organization as the first regimen of treatment for HIV/AIDS patients in poor countries. Thailand made history with the drug by becoming the first country to manufacture generic HIV/AIDS drugs and export them to neighbouring countries.
Her actions have saved tens of thousands of lives, and likely many more. Such is the good doctor’s popularity that her fame has spread much beyond the universities where she still teaches and the communities where she works, and reached onto the Broadway stage, where her story has inspired the play Cocktail.
What do you think have been the most important factors that have helped get you to where you are today?
I am motivated by the sense of fairness and the view that getting access to essential medicines is a basic human right. The development and manufacture of medicines must be aimed at improving public health and well-being of the people, thereby contributing to economic growth and prosperity. My life is dedicated to bringing about local pharmaceutical production by formulating and manufacturing affordable generic drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases to improve people’s heath. This ingrained consciousness goes together with my determination, keeping the promise to others (to alleviate suffering from diseases), continuous effort and hard work to achieve my goal.
What were some of the biggest obstacles to reaching where you are today?
My journey as a pharmacist in pursuit of increasing access to medicines to those underprivileged and often disadvantaged people in the developing nations has been a long journey. That journey is filled with adventures, formidable challenges and achievements, disappointments and rewards, sadness and joy, both in my homeland Thailand and in many Asian and African countries that I’ve visited and worked in. Despite death threats and dangerous working environments, the biggest challenge lies in how to empower the local people, not only transfer to them the pharmaceutical know-how but also show them and make them believe that they can produce medicines to improve the health of their community and compatriots.
Tell us a bit about your childhood, your ambitions and who inspired or influenced you to be who you are today?
I was born and raised in Samui Island, Suratthani Province in Southern Thailand. My father was then the only doctor on the Island and my mother was a nurse and the only midwife. I remember my childhood jumping on the back of the horse that my father rode to remote villages (beaten track and no road) to treat patients. He did not collect any fee from the villagers. He transformed our home into an in-patient ward for patients who had to stay overnight or longer period for treatment because Samui Island did not have a hospital. Growing up in that environment and seeing the suffering from diseases that patients must endure firmly established in me the compassion and willingness to help. My grandmother, who was a nun, also instilled in me the spirit of perseverance against all odds and to “never give up” – the principles that guide my actions in Africa today where obstacles are the norm.
Being a woman, has that affected your path to where you are today, and how?
I think being a woman is in many ways an advantage. The people whom I have contact with (men, women, children, the elderly) see me as their mother, teacher, aunt, sister, daughter or relative. They feel that I can empathize with them and feel their pain.
What do you believe is your greatest contribution, to society or the community?
I think my work helps to raise awareness that a country/community/society as a whole must have a heart for humanity. We should not abandon our brothers and sisters who are disadvantaged for different reasons and causes (the poor, the sick, the elderly, the detainees, the psychiatric patients, drug addicts, etc.) but should care for them and help them to be healthy and to return to well-being and happiness and become important part of our society’s progress and development.
What is your main message for the younger generation? What should they learn from your experience?
Young people can contribute creatively and in many specialized ways to the common good of our society as long as they are willing, have a positive attitude and work hard. Patience is a virtue. Success cannot be bought; it can only be gradually created over a lifetime.
What is your message for other women/girls who may be inspired by your journey and achievements?
Gender should not be cited as an excuse for not pursuing one’s dream. Nowadays, a man and a woman have equal opportunities in life. A person who possesses determination, patience, willingness to work hard and a good and caring heart can withstand life’s different challenges and ride out the toughest storms. It is very important that whatever work they choose, they should do it with happiness and do not worry that they must always please others. Doing their best is enough.