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PhD candidate examines COVID-19 preparedness and response in Sub-Saharan Africa
By: Geron Malbas
Gisele Umviligihozo, Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) PhD candidate and Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Research Excellence (SANTHE) scholar, has published a commentary on the impact of COVID-19 entitled “Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic: A perspective of early career African scientists”. Umviligihozo led a group of early-career health research scientists from Africa to collaborate on this piece, which is published in the Wellcome Open Research journal undergoing peer review. The article documents public health interventions implemented in seven SSA countries including Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Cameroon, Zambia, South Africa and Botswana.
Her article showed how essential it is to consider specific factors when designing interventions and planning research activities in particular locations with specific contexts. Umviligihozo plans to apply this approach to her current research work and help define future research priorities. She also hopes to see SSA countries implement a public health response that utilizes the strengths of early initiated interventions.
“Given the risk of infectious disease epidemics in Sub-Saharan Africa, I would like to see countries work together to create a standing emergency working group that could quickly develop a strong outbreak response and regularly monitor the capacity of health systems, setting new goals and continuously improve health standards in all areas,” she explains.
Originally from Rwanda, Umviligihozo completed her Bachelor of Biological Sciences from the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Rwanda. She then worked as a clinical research laboratory technician at Project San Francisco (PSF)/Rwanda-Zambia HIV Research group, studying HIV transmission and testing potential HIV vaccines.
In addition to her full-time job at PSF, she completed an intensive diploma course in virology from Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar and a post-graduate certificate in Infectious disease from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. With her continuous pursuit of higher education, Umviligihozo applied for the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship (QE2S) program for African students, and joined the FHS master’s program as an African QE2 scholar.
“The QE2S is a very competitive graduate fellowship, but with my successful academic and scientific training records, strong technical laboratory background and extensive clinical research experience, I was an ideal candidate for the scholarship,” said Umviligihozo. “As my QE2 scholarship has ended, my proficient performance in the MSc program and my background experience qualified me for a competitively awarded SANTHE scholarship to pursue a PhD program in FHS."
Working in Mark Brockman and Zabrina Brumme’s research labs for SFU and BC-CfE, Umviligihozo has been conducting her PhD HIV research activities. With her current COVID-19 research, she has identified a need for a Canadian response to help communities that are disproportionally impacted by the virus, as well as what researchers should consider in order to make decisions that address the health inequities faced by black, indigenous, people of color communities (BIPOC).
“In order to develop an adequate response to COVID-19 for populations disproportionally impacted by the virus, it is essential that Canada and BC develop a specific program that takes into account the distinctive factors and unique challenges that make these communities more susceptible to the virus,” she explains. “With very few research studies focusing on minority communities and Indigenous populations, paired with the lack of data collection regarding BIPOC communities, it becomes difficult to identify the most common and unique health problems they face, making it impossible to develop evidence-based interventions. Researchers should rapidly expand research studies to include BIPOC communities in order to identify key issues that need to be addressed.”