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You often hear the refrain “cure world hunger” as an aspirational endeavor that is almost impossible to attain. For Dr. Judd Walson,  UW associate professor of global health, with appointments in pediatrics and infectious disease, his focus is not only about world hunger or nutrition, it’s about understanding the relationship between nutrition and infection with the goal of reducing the deaths in the most vulnerable child populations around the world.

As a kid, Walson’s world was magic. Literally. By 15, he was attending birthday parties, dazzling local audiences with his sleight-of-hand, traveling to magic conventions and eventually performing around the country. He attended Pitzer College in Claremont, CA, where he took a leave of absence after one semester and headed off to London to street perform.

As a street performer, he made good money traveling throughout Europe. “Good weather meant good pay,” said Walson. “But I saw the downside of this lifestyle.” Life was hard on the streets, with mental health issues and substance abuse common among the tight-knit group of dancers, musicians and other performers. Walson had to admit that, while it was fun, it wasn’t clear what he was giving back to society. This wasn’t the career for him.

So back to Pitzer he went and jumped into anthropology. “A professor suggested that I do a semester in Nepal where I would live with a family, work on a research project and take language lessons,” he recalled. “The program was housed in Balkot, near Kathmandu, where the program also hosted a hospitality center where villagers from remote areas would stay while they sought medical care in the capital. I got to hear a lot about people’s medical needs.”

After graduating from Pitzer, Walson returned as an Intern to Nepal and began thinking about medical school. He recalls a moment of epiphany, when a man came running into the village to say a pregnant woman had been gored by a yak. Walson rushed to help out but realized how much more he needed to learn if he was going to have the skills to truly make a difference. “The woman eventually delivered a healthy baby,” said Walson. “This event was my turning point.”

He applied to Tufts University School of Medicine and was accepted into the combined MD/MPH program. He followed it with a combined residency in internal medicine and pediatrics at Duke University and a fellowship in infectious disease at the University of Washington. Throughout his training, Walson remained focused on how he could most effectively apply his interests in medicine and global health.

While living in Nepal, he had witnessed the insidiousness of malnutrition. “Babies often end up in a situation where their nutrition is tenuous at best, then they get sick, which makes it harder to keep up with their nutritional needs, which makes them again more likely to get sick. This vicious cycle is compounded by difficult economic and social conditions that limit families’ resilience and perpetuate the downward spiral.”

In 2004, Walson went to Kenya to work on a program for children who were HIV positive. At that time, there were effective drugs to treat this condition but little access in many parts of Kenya to these life-saving medications. “All these things fit together,” he said.  “Again, I saw how the lack of access to medications coupled with underlying malnutrition and the social stigma of HIV combined to create a terrible situation for these mothers and their babies. Walson was faced with the complexities of improving health in difficult settings. “There have been a lot of successes in medicine,” he continued. “There have been a few big wins over the years and what’s left now are big, difficult problems.”

In 2015, Walson became the co-principal investigator of the CHAIN program—Childhood Acute Illness & Nutrition Network—a multi-center cohort study that seeks to identify opportunities for intervention for undernourished children with acute illness, both in the hospital and after discharge from the hospital. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the study takes place in Africa and South Asia.

“In order to fix these problems, we need to understand them. There is a complex interplay between social, medical and nutritional needs that may be different for different children. We need to figure out how to best target the right solutions to the most appropriate children. Only then are we going to see the positive change we seek,” said Walson. “We need to deliver what we know will work in these countries.”

In addition to CHAIN, Walson also oversees a large Gates-funded project called DEWORM3 that aims to demonstrate the feasibility of eliminating intestinal parasites as a public health problem in many settings through mass drug administration of antiparasitic drugs. These parasites reduce children’s ability to absorb nutrients, which leads to malnutrition, anemia, impaired growth and cognitive development, while increasing susceptibility to infection.

Walson carries on in his quest to improve childhood resilience and reduce childhood deaths in vulnerable populations. When he isn’t traveling the world to oversee CHAIN and DEWORM3, he spends time with his wife and three children. Still a magic aficionado, Walson treats his children to a few magic tricks now and then. He knows, however, that if he can help contribute to solutions to save the lives of millions of children worldwide, he will have delivered his best magic yet.

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