In Memoriam: Remembering Dr. Tebebe Yemane Berhan

05 Mar 2021
Dr Tebebe with President Jimmy Carter

On 20 February 2021, the trachoma community mourned the loss of the Most Honourable World Laureate Dr. Tebebe Yemane Berhan, who passed away after a short illness in Ethiopia. 

Dr. Tebebe was a tireless advocate in the fight against neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in Ethiopia. He regularly attended trachoma and river blindness program events and attracted significant high-level political attention to these causes. Dr. Tebebe personally attended the public launches of all trachoma mass drug administration events in East and West Amhara, often accompanied by local political leaders and representatives of the Lions Clubs of Ethiopia, Africa and Lions Club International Foundation (LCIF) leaders. In 2015, Dr. Tebebe became an Ambassador of Goodwill for the Guinea Worm Eradication Program in Ethiopia, after which he used his personal influence to advance Guinea worm eradication in Ethiopia and in the region.

Dr. Tebebe’s impact to improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people transcended decades. Dr. Tebebe graduated from Lviv State Medical Institute-Soviet Union in 1974 with a Doctorate of Medicine and received a diploma in Dermatology-Venereology with Honors in 1976. He completed his postgraduate in 1978, obtaining a Doctorate of Philosophy in Medicine.

Dr. Tebebe started his Lions career in 1988 with the Lions Club of Addis Ababa and became the SightFirst Chairman in 1995. He was actively involved as Zone and Region Chairman and then becoming District Governor during 2001-2002. In November 2014, Dr. Tebebe received the Russian Federation’s Pushkin Award in recognition of his humanitarian activities, people's diplomacy, and furtherance of the medical science in Ethiopia, particularly in the field of NTDs.      

In 2014, Dr. Tebebe was inducted to the LCIF Executive Committee as a representative of Africa. Dr. Tebebe was a member of the LCIF Board of Trustees from 2015-2018. On behalf of the Lions Clubs of Ethiopia, Dr. Tebebe was the Project Chairperson for all LCIF SightFirst grants to The Carter Center. Dr. Tebebe was also the grant administrator for the LCIF partnership with The Carter Center, the Lions-Carter Center SightFirst Initiative in Ethiopia for trachoma and river blindness. 

Dr. Paul Emerson, fellow Lion, Director of the International Trachoma Initiative and former Director of The Carter Center Trachoma Control Program reflected on the loss of Dr. Tebebe, saying: “It’s hard to imagine how innovative and audacious the integrated malaria and trachoma (MalTra) was back in 2008. We simply did not know whether we could mobilize the people and Government of Ethiopia to scale up from targeting two hundred thousand people to eight million in a week. Tebebe said ‘leave it to me’, and we did. At the first MalTra launch, Zithromax® was taken by the President of Ethiopia, the President of the Amhara National Regional State, the Head of the Regional Health Bureau, and other prominent leaders – and this was broadcast on the national and state radio and television. After that, who in Amhara did not know about the campaign? How could anyone have concerns about taking the medicine? Only Tebebe could have arranged that launch and he is irreplaceable. 

Under Dr. Tebebe’s leadership and support, the Lions-Carter Center SightFirst Initiative for trachoma and river blindness grew significantly. Dr. Teshome Gebre of the International Trachoma Initiative, former Country Representative of The Carter Center Ethiopia and also fellow Lion, affectionately remembers Dr. Tebebe saying, “we can eliminate trachoma from ground zero, the most affected region of Amhara” and noted that Dr. Tebebe set his sights on doing just that and more. From 2001-2020, over 186.7 million antibiotic treatments were delivered and over 715,000 surgeries were performed for trachoma. In addition, over 140 million treatments for river blindness elimination were delivered and since 2014, Ethiopia underwent a strategic shift from disease control to elimination. Dr. Gebre reflected on the foundation built by Dr. Tebebe stating, “The Lions-Carter Center SightFirst Initiative is a unique and exemplary partnership in the history of Lions Clubs International that has endured for more than two decades.”

Ms. Kelly Callahan, Director of Trachoma Control for The Carter Center and also fellow Lion fondly reflected on Dr. Tebebe’s spirit, intense passion, and deep dedication. Ms. Callahan noted “President Carter once said that his faith demands, ‘that I do whatever I can, wherever I can, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference’. Lion Tebebe embodied this way of life to the fullest – he did whatever he could, whenever he could, with whatever he had to make a difference - to improve lives and to end suffering. Lion Tebebe gave all he had to the fullest. May his soul rest in peace knowing he made a difference”.

The International Coalition for Trachoma Control extends its sincerest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Dr Tebebe. In particular, we share our deepest sympathies with his spouse, Dr. Yalem Ambaye, his two daughters, son-in-laws and two grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to LCIF in his name. Condolence messages may be sent to:

Dr. Yalem Ambaye, Villa Berhan, Mauritania St. 113, K 03, PO Box 4011993, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia