The 2004 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the worst and deadliest hurricane seasons of the 21st century. There were a total of nine hurricanes and 15 storms and tropical cyclones, half of which brushed or struck the United States and other Caribbean countries, causing about 3,270 deaths and about $61.2 billion damage in property, with the state of Florida being one of the most affected areas. However, on ground to help mitigate the effects of the devastation was a Nigerian-American paediatrician and health administrator, John Oderah Agwunobi.
Agwunobi coordinated and led the state public health emergency response efforts in saving lives and bringing relief to millions of people while serving as the secretary of health of the state of Florida under the administration of Governor Jeb Bush. Quite remarkably, prior to the hurricane of 2004, Agwunobi had led the response to the United States’ first-ever intentional anthrax attack in 2001. Thereafter, he guided the state of Florida’s efforts to prepare for, prevent, respond to and mitigate the effects of a bioterrorism attack.
In December 2005, Agwunobi was confirmed by the US Senate to be the Assistant Secretary of Health (ASH) of the US government and served as a member of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, holding the rank of a 4-star Admiral.
As the ASH, Agwunobi oversaw the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General, Centres for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, the FDA, HRSA, Indian Health Service, Office of Minority Health, as well as numerous other Public Health offices and programmes. He also served as the U.S. representative on the World Health Organisation executive board.
In 2007 Agwunobi was appointed as the senior vice president of Walmart stores Inc. and President of the retailer’s $30 billion Health and Wellness business, a position he occupied till 2014. At Walmart, Agwunobi was responsible for a chain of 4,000 retail, specialty and mail order pharmacies; more than 2,500 vision centers and 100 in-store convenient care clinics; and a pharmacy benefits management unit.
Background and education
Dr Agwunobi was born on 4 October, 1964 in Dundee, Agnus, Scotland, to a Nigerian father, Titus Chukwuma Agwunobi from Anambra State; and a Scottish mother – Veronica Marie Stuart Shaw. As the first of five children, he spent his childhood years in the UK before his family relocated to Nigeria, where he had his secondary and tertiary education. He graduated in 1987 with a degree in medicine and surgery from the University of Jos, Plateau State, where his father was a professor of medicine.
Agwunobi moved to the United States in 1989, where he had his paediatric residency training at Howard University Hospital, Washington, DC, from 1990 to 1993. During his residency programme, he also worked at the Children’s National Medical Centre and the District of Columbia General Hospital – then one of US busiest inner-city hospitals.
Agwunobi received his master of business administration degree from Georgetown University Washington DC in 2000 and obtained his Masters of Public Health degree from John Hopkins University, Baltimore, in 2004.
Agwunobi began his professional career in 1993 as an attending paediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children, a Washington DC-based paediatric rehabilitation hospital and community health care provider. As a pediatrician, he dedicated himself to working with underserved populations and children with special needs, a passion he developed during his residency training.
In July 1998, Agwunobi became the medical director of the Hospital for Sick Children, and a year later, was appointed as the vice president of Medical Affairs and Patient Services. He also served as the medical director for an affiliated managed care plan during the same period, where he maintained a network of more than 2,300 physicians and specialists.
In 2000, Agwunobi was appointed as the deputy secretary, Florida Department of Health, where his passion for leadership and excellence in public health was widely acclaimed. In October 2001, he was appointed as the state of Florida’s Secretary of Health and State Health Officer by Governor Jeb Bush where he served till September, 2005.
As secretary, Dr Agwunobi moved the department toward increased efficiency, customer focus, and productivity. He led the call for a healthier Florida, advocating for improved nutrition and exercise in an effort to address the state’s epidemic of overweight and obesity. As earlier noted, his department’s many successes included responses to the four major hurricanes of 2004, infectious disease outbreaks – West Nile, SARS, and the intentional anthrax attack which occurred a day after his appointment as secretary of health.
Agwunobi also led efforts to decrease the state’s infant mortality rate, lowering tobacco use among youths, addressing racial and ethnic health disparities, and improving overall access to medical and dental care.
Agwunobi served as the 12th assistant secretary for health (ASH) from December 17, 2005 to September 4, 2007. As the ASH, he served as the secretary’s primary advisor on matters involving the nation’s public health. He also oversaw the US Public Health Service and its Commissioned Corps for the secretary.
In addition, Agwunobi has served as vice chair of the U.S. African Development Foundation, a federal agency dedicated to fighting poverty in marginalised populations on the African continent since 2008.
After leaving Walmart Stores in 2014, Dr Agwunobi served as a board advisor to Shopko, a Specialty Retail Stores Holding Corp. in Green Bay, Wisconsin; as well as board director for Magellan Health Services Inc. of Scottsdale, Arizona; and Member “Future” Panel of Leavitt Partners LLC, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In February 2016, Agwunobi joined Herbalife Nutrition Limited as the chief nutrition officer, and was later appointed co-president of the firm in June 2017. At Herbalife, he is responsible for training, education, science strategy and product development and has been leading the Herbalife Nutrition Institute; the Herbalife Nutrition Advisory Board and the Herbalife Dietetic Advisory Board, working with the company’s scientists to integrate nutrition science into products.
Awards and recognitions
In recognition of his distinguished career, Dr Agwunobi has received honours and awards, including Public Administrator of the Year, APHA Public Health Hero Citation, and Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Paediatrics and a member of American Medical Association. He served as Chair of the Advisory Committee to the Director of Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as on the Board of Directors of the National Quality Forum—an advisory group formed at the recommendation of the President’s Advisory Commission on Consumer Protection and Quality in the Health Care Industry.
Dr Agwunobi is happily married to Jennifer Agwunobi and they are blessed with children.