By Farasha Bashir
Have you ever faced a daunting medical crisis and felt helpless? A hospital wing overflowing with patients with very little you can do to help or cure them? This was the situation Victoria Nankabirwa found herself in 2004 when she was working as an intern doctor at the Department of Paediatrics in Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda. That year, during her internship, there was a measles outbreak in Kampala. Soon the paediatric ward was overflowing with afflicted children who were more likely to succumb to the disease than leave the hospital wing to which they were confined.
Such was the bleak situation when the government initiated a mass immunisation campaign to tackle the epidemic. The campaign was thorough, leaving no stone unturned and targeting both the sick children and those susceptible to the disease. The results were astonishing. Within a short period of time, the entire wing had dried up; patients were getting better and discharged while no new cases were reported.
Watching the effect of a single, simple intervention 13 years ago that saved so many lives changed Victoria. Erstwhile, she wanted to pursue a career in clinical medicine but her experience working in the paediatric wing and witnessing the utility of public health in helping populations motivated her to change her career track. Around this time, she received a call from one of her professors telling her about a new public health programme in Bangladesh. This programme would incorporate the theoretical approaches from the classroom and apply them practically through field-based learning. It was also taught by renowned faculty from institutions across the world.
Contemplating her future, Victoria was invited to take part in a briefing session, conducted by Jon Rohde and Cole P Dodge – two renowned scholars and practitioners in public health. They described the story of oral rehydration solution (ORS) that was developed in Bangladesh and saved over 40 million lives. This resonated with Victoria as she herself watched how a simple awareness and immunisation campaign had cured so many children. She made her decision to study at this new school of public health; not only was the programme tailored to the scenario in low and middle income countries like her own, but she would gain unprecedented exposure to national and international experts and access to BRAC, the largest and most effective NGO in the world.
“Most of the practical skills I learned and adopted and used in my career, I learned it from here – the BRAC School of Public Health,” said Victoria.
Victoria was one of 25 students in the first batch of the Master of Public Health (MPH) programme at the BRAC School of Public Health (the MPH is currently on its 13th batch). She credits the School for not only providing a strong academic foundation but also teaching her skills vital to her career. She was provided the simple guidance she needed to work in the field, starting from how to ask a question to someone to understanding what entails a “good” question to ask. The practical day-to-day aspects are some of the valued lessons, which she attributes to helping her get to where she is today.
Since graduating from the School,Victoria has pursued further degrees, including a PhD in International Health from University of Bergen (Norway) and a DrPH in Epidemiology from Columbia University (USA). She has also taught at both universities in various capacities. This year, she will be teaching at the BRAC School of Public Health, taking classes in the Epidemiology module, bringing her journey with the School to a full circle.
“I always wanted to give back. Coming to Bangladesh changed my life and I knew that if I were to give back, the BRAC School of Public Health would be one of the first places I would do so.”
Today, she is a lecturer at Makerere University (the same institution where she completed her Doctor of Medicine) and an avid researcher in her chosen field. She is also a researcher at the center for intervention science in maternal and child health (CISMAC) at the University of Bergen in Norway and also a principle investigator for the BCG study and the cholorhexidine studies in Uganda.
To all those who are currently undertaking a degree in public health or hoping to pursue a career in this field, she advises them to think ahead. The public health arena is ever changing, with non-communicable diseases poised to be the next big threat affecting those in low and middle-income countries. However, the threat of other problems, such as infectious diseases and chronic malnutrition still persists. Thus the need for quality public health practitioners today is more vital than ever with a wide scope of challenges that must be tackled.
The author is a communications and knowledge manager at BRAC School of Public Health.