Woman scientist wins public health prize

Staff Writer
A Motswana scientist has won the International Public Health Award from the United States' Office of Global Health OGH), an organ of the Central Disease Control (CDC) office.

Dr Poloko Kebaabetswe won the award for her dedication and leadership in successfully directing the TDF2 HIV Prevention Study in Botswana. In an interview, Dr Kebaabetswe said the award was in recognition of her effort to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

She works for BOTUSA, a Botswana and United States of America partnership, as a co-principal investigator and behavioural scientist. She also acted as associate director after her boss went to Atlanta from 2006 to February this year.

This means that besides her normal roles, she was also responsible for all the aspects of the study and gave guidance to her staff.

The hardworking scientist, whose passion for her job earned her the nickname of 'Mma Truvada' the name of the medication used for the study. 

She said the OGH was looking to recognise an outstanding, talented and dedicated member of staff for their contribution to improve international public health and make the world a better place to live in.

"When giving me the award they told me that if the study is successful it will be due to my dedication and leadership qualities," she said.

Explaining her role of co-principal investigator, which puts her at number two in the leadership hierarchy she said that she is responsible for the overall administration and leadership of the study.

Her work entails making sure the study is running according to the protocol and follows both local and international ethical guidelines, ensuring the public is educated about the study.

She also has to monitor the forms used for gathering information from participants. She said that before briefing the nation, she met the then President Festus Mogae and told him about the study.

'Mma Truvada' said she also gave a breakdown of the study which started in March, 2007, when she said "TDF2 is the name of the HIV study where we are testing a drug, ARV, used for treatment to find out if it can be used for or to prevent HIV infection. In this study we are looking volunteers who are HIV negative Batswana and willing to make a difference in HIV prevention. If this study is successful, it can save many lives in Botswana alone. It is estimated that in Botswana if it is found to be effective, it could prevent up to 130, 000 infections in ten years," she said.

The study targets young people. Of the 1,200 that the study is looking for, it has so far managed to recruit close to 600 Kebaabetswe says that she hopes that by 2010 the study would have wrapped up.

She says that despite the milestones they made, they still grapple with some challenges. The fact that they are recruiting young people who are mobile on holidays, they travel

to their villages or some go looking for employment in far away places after graduating from tertiary schools.

The other setback, she said, is that they open only on weekdays, whilst on Friday they open half days and do not open over US holidays.

"Some of the people we recruit are working and it's difficult for them to come regularly to our clinics as they can't frequently ask to be excused from their workplaces," she said.
She however said that they have sought permission from the US embassy to open on holidays and they are also planning to open on weekends. To widen the net and reach out to more volunteers she said, they are also working in partnership with youth organisations like YOHO, the Youth Health Organisation, to encourage volunteers to come on aboard.

She said that they have increased the age range from 18 to 29 to 18 to 39 years for volunteers who want to enrol.

The Mahalapye born Kebaabetswe is married and has four children, two first born sons and two daughters.

"My staff and family have been very supportive, especially my husband who used to bring me supper at the office those days when we were starting the study. It was quite tough. I dedicate this award to them," she said.

She got a Bachelor of Science degree in Canada and went on to obtain a Masters in Public Health in California in the US and her PhD in Texas.

 This high achiever explained that she is driven by the desire to help people and confesses that public health has always been her first love.

"I like to see people in a healthy state and as a result I concentrated on health promotion and health education. I realised that for a nation to be healthy it needs to be educated first.

"I am a scientist who is intrigued by answering difficult questions for the betterment of human beings," she said.

Her vision is for Botswana to be a knowledgeable and healthy society. She explains that HIV, being the most destructive disease to befall the human race, she sees herself better placed as a public health scientist to engage in research with a view to alleviating it and other illnesses.

She has written a chapter in a book titled 'AIDS in Africa' and she has published several publications especially on subjects like circumcision.

It is not the first time Kebaabetswe  has won an award. For her PhD, she was given the National Delta Omega award for her academic excellence after being in the top 10 in the School of Public Health in the whole of the US.

"In 2007 I was given the Franklyn Award by BOTUSA for dedication, hard work and diligence," she said.



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