Faces of WHO – Assel Jabassova, WHO European Center for Primary Health Care, Kazakhstan


Assel Jabassova joined WHO in 2017 and works as a communications consultant at WHO’s European Center for Primary Health Care in Almaty, Kazakhstan. With a sharp and creative eye for detail, language and art, she also heads her own content creation agency called Text and the City. When she needs a break from juggling multiple things at once, she sits down in her favorite armchair with one of her books – or watches Indiana Jones.

What is your background?

‘I studied international journalism, French and art and culture. I used to work at a center for contemporary art, filled with creative energy, surrounded by all these amazing people in the art scene – a scene that flourished in Kazakhstan at the beginning of this century. Many of them have become national art icons and legends in Kazakhstan and beyond. It’s also where I met my closest friends, and we’ve been friends for over 20 years now. It was a very happy time in my life. At one point I started working in the glossy magazine world, working for Harper’s Bazaar as a culture editor and then moving on to Esquire, Cosmopolitan and other women’s magazines. I have traveled all over the world and met many fascinating people.

What brought you to WHO?

After leaving the world of women’s magazines and having my second child, I decided to open my own content creation agency, starting with a small team. Working as a freelancer was very convenient for me: it was hard work, but it also meant that I could be my own boss. One day, a friend of mine happened to meet a WHO staff member who was looking for a local team to produce a video on primary health care, and my friend told her, “You should meet Assel!” The rest is history.

What was it like to transition from the fashion world to health?

It really wasn’t that big of a transition. In the women’s magazines, we have covered many health-related topics, such as sex education, disease prevention, breast cancer or obesity, to name just a few. Women’s health around the world is underappreciated and overshadowed, and I pushed hard for us to cover many of these topics. We wanted to create content that was useful to our readers, and I think we succeeded. Today I feel that I can use my creative side to work for the WHO European Center for Primary Health Care with all my wonderful colleagues. We are very innovative as a team. In 2020, for example, we launched a talk show on primary healthcare. There are many ways to spread the word about the importance of primary health care.

A talk show?

Yes! It was very exciting. After the idea was born, we had many discussions about the format. We finally decided we didn’t want speeches or teleprompters: we wanted to convey the real experiences and testimonials of practitioners and those who care for the health of others. In December 2020, we broadcast Let’s Talk Primary Health Care for the first time. It is aimed at policy makers, influencers and health professionals across the WHO European Region, and all episodes are available online. And the response was great!

What inspires you?

It’s the human stories. We once did a photo story about a healthcare worker working with mothers and their newborns in remote areas. It was minus 20 degrees Celsius, in the middle of winter. A medical bus brought us and the health worker to visit a family who had just welcomed their third son. I will always remember that crisp morning, with snow everywhere. The family’s home was very simple, but so warm and cozy inside. The difference in temperature was incredible. Being there, seeing the fantastic work done by healthcare workers and feeling the family’s joy – it’s those little moments that stay with you.

It’s also inspiring to work with creative, intelligent people – especially smart women. They are very effective in what they do, in an inclusive way, and are often not afraid to try new things. The talk show is a good example of what can be done if you think outside the box. More importantly, the team here is proof that empathy and good team spirit combined with emotional intelligence can move mountains.

What book is on top of your pile?

It’s this wonderful book called Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, filled with facts about how women have been made invisible throughout history. I’m halfway through and it’s both infuriating and excellent.

Last question. Your favorite movie?

My father is a geologist. At the moment, he is busy saving the Aral Sea and creating water dams for the critically endangered Saiga goats. When I was a kid we went on exciting expeditions with him – maybe that’s why I like Indiana Jones [laughs]. When I’m sad or sick and can’t leave the couch, I watch Indiana Jones movies. My husband doesn’t get it at all, and my kids even less, but that’s my thing.

The WHO European Center for Primary Health Care (Almaty, Kazakhstan)

  • Number of staff: 12
  • The Center is part of the WHO/Europe Division of Rural Health Policies and Systems and serves as a center of excellence in primary health care policy. It supports Member States in their efforts to strengthen people-centred primary healthcare services for all. His work focuses on themes that have emerged as transformative in the pandemic and post-pandemic period, such as the application of a multi-disciplinary approach, the formation of primary healthcare networks, the strengthening of population health management, and others.
  • The Center is composed of a team of public health specialists, health economists, social scientists, data specialists, academics and former clinicians who share the same passion for primary health care and people.
  • The Center, established in 2016, is located in Almaty, where the Declaration of Alma-Ata was signed in 1978, which emerged as a major milestone of the twentieth century in the field of public health, providing primary health care identified as key to achieving the goal of Health for All.
  • Primary health care is health care received in the community, usually from GPs, community nurses, mental health specialists, social workers and other professionals in health centres. It must be universally accessible to all through means acceptable to them, and at a cost that the community and country can afford.