Katherine O'Brien

Kate O'Brien is a recognized international expert in the areas of pneumococcal epidemiology, pneumococcal vaccine trials and impact studies, and surveillance for pneumococcal disease. She is also known as an expert in infectious diseases (including pneumonia and diarrheal diseases) in American Indian populations. She is a pediatric infectious disease physician, epidemiologist, and the director of the Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals Department at the World Health Organization (WHO),[1] a role she took on in January 2019. In this role, she is responsible for leading the overall work and strategy of the Department to advance the vision of reducing the health, social and economic burden of vaccine preventable diseases. The Director works across all levels of WHO (country, region and headquarters) in collaboration with partners to deliver country impact.


Dr. O’Brien trained as a pediatric infectious disease physician, epidemiologist and vaccinologist. She earned her BSc in chemistry from University of Toronto (Canada), her MD from McGill University (Canada), and her MPH from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (US) before completing her training at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an Epidemic Intelligence Officer, in the Respiratory Diseases Branch.


Prior to joining WHO, she was Professor of International Health and Epidemiology and Executive Director of the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Her scientific and policy work domestically and globally has focused on vaccine preventable illnesses, among both children and adults. The work has included surveillance, epidemiology, and vaccine clinical trials of pneumococcal disease; rotavirus; Haemophilus influenzae type b; respiratory syncytial virus and influenza vaccines.

She has worked extensively with American Indian populations and in Africa and south Asia, partnering with local scientists and country program staff to develop rigorous scientific evidence and bring it into the vaccine policy arena, thereby accelerating the use and access to life-saving vaccines for children living in low resource countries and settings.

She has worked in close partnerships with GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, university colleagues, NGOs, and with countries to advance programs and policies on child health. She has been honored with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award, the Sabin Vaccine Institute Young Investigator Award, the U.S. Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering (PECASE). She served on the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on Immunization for six years and on the GAVI board.


  • 2011: President's Early Career Award in Science and Engineering (PECASE)
  • 2008: Sabin Vaccine Institute, Young Investigator Award.
  • 2003: Nominee, Outstanding Scientific Contribution to Public Health Award, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • 2001: CDC, Honor Award for outstanding scientific contributions to public health, Group B Streptococcal Prevention Team
  • 1999: CDC, Nakano Citation, for the Haiti diethylene glycol poisoning investigation.
  • 1998: Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award, Department of Health and Human Services
  • 1997: CDC Mackel Award for an epidemic investigation which best combines epidemiology and laboratory work.
  • 1997: CDC Group Honor Award for The Haiti Emergency Response Team
  • 1997: Food and Drug Administration Group Recognition Award for meritorious service in the investigation of an international public health crisis which was associated with the contamination of pharmaceuticals by diethylene glycol.


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