Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow: Disease Elimination Can Bring People Together
When Ahlam Awad Mohammed was awarded the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship through The Task Force for Global Health (TFGH), it was at a point in her career when she had decided to switch gears. Although she had just obtained her Master’s degree in public health, most of her public health experience had focused on research in the United States. She was mulling next steps and wondering how she could combine her education and her proficiency in multiple languages. The fellowship afforded her the opportunity to focus on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in the country where she grew up: Ethiopia.
It’s nine months later, and Mohammed, who recently wrapped up her fellowship, says the experience was enriching and instructive, especially as she got to witness first-hand the positive impact programs and people can have on NTDs which affect more than a billion people around the world.
Here, she talks about her work with The Task Force’s Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center (NTD-SC) where she assisted and developed case studies for various NTD projects based in Ethiopia.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, and what prompted your move into global health work?
I grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and moved to the U.S. for undergraduate and graduate studies. Growing up in a developing country, I was aware that public health was a need – and a challenge to deliver. After working on child nutrition and physical activity for a few years in the U.S., I decided I wanted to follow my passion in global health. In graduate school, I took courses in tropical infectious diseases which furthered my interest in communicable diseases. The Hilton fellowship came at the perfect time and allowed me to transition to NTDs.
While a few countries have been able to end some of the NTDs, many others are still far behind their goals. There is still so much to be done.
As a fellow, you worked with The Task Force’s NTD-SC. What did you do in that role?
After a few weeks of orientation at The Task Force headquarters in Decatur, GA, I began working in Ethiopia. I worked mainly on trachoma research projects – Ethiopia has the highest prevalence of trachoma in the world. I also worked with officials from the Ethiopian Ministry of Health during the national rollout of a quick, inexpensive and simple-to-use tool called the Supervisor’s Coverage Tool. NTD-SC was involved in the development of this tool which was recently endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO). The tool is used to assess treatment coverage of mass drug administration for NTDs. (Mass drug treatments have proven to be an effective way to treat certain NTDs around the world, and have made elimination of those diseases a real possibility within the next few years.)
What were some of the experiences that you most valued?
I worked closely with two well-respected Ethiopian trachoma experts who had worked on the disease for years; their knowledge and perspective were invaluable in providing me with a deeper understanding of the severity of the disease and heightened my interest in trachoma.
I remember visiting a hamlet of about 30 homes in a trachoma-endemic district in South-Western Ethiopia. We expected to find many active trachoma cases but found hardly any, largely because the health extension worker and community head were deeply invested and had spent time and resources educating the people about health issues and building proper latrines. In hamlets where the involvement of these two figures was low, trachoma cases were generally high. I realized that the people who occupy these positions could have a profound impact on the direction a disease takes in a village.
Field work was exhausting but immensely satisfying and inspiring. Each day, I’d come back knowing that the projects I was working were going to help change someone’s life for the better.
How has this time working in the field impacted your view of global health?
Having that exposure to trachoma in the field and working with various partners, who are all collaborating to eliminate the disease, has strengthened my resolve to work on NTDs. I realized that NTD elimination is all about coming together. Most of the people who are affected by NTDs live in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. But there is real progress being made toward eliminating some of these devastating diseases thanks to ongoing collaboration between various players including WHO, endemic countries, non-governmental organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and donors. These groups are working closely together to control and eliminate at least 10 of the most common NTDs on WHO’s list in the next few years.
The Hilton Prize Coalition is an independent alliance of the 22 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, working together to make an impact in humanitarian assistance, human rights, development, education and health. The Task Force received the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2016.