Welcome to our Meet the SDG3 researcher blog collection. We are interviewing a series of academics and practitioners working in diverse fields to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. You can find other posts in this collection here, and discover what else Springer Nature is doing to advance progress towards achieving this goal on our dedicated SDG3 hub.
Please tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Fingani Annie Mphande-Nyasulu. I am an infectious disease and public health consultant with a background in microbiology and molecular biology.
Currently, I work as a lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (MD-KMITL), Thailand. I am also a council member for the International Society of Infectious Diseases (ISID).
After graduating with a BSc degree in Biology and Organic Chemistry from the University of Malawi, Chancellor College, I joined the University of Botswana for an MSc degree in Applied Microbiology.
My main area of focus was food microbiology and my research looked at mycotoxins and the role of insects in the dispersal of fungal spores in storage.
I then joined the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme (MLW) as a research assistant on the post-mortem study on severe malaria in children and the expression of genes associated with severe disease in various organs.
I completed my PhD in infection biology at the Karolinska Institutet, in Stockholm, Sweden, and acquired a short term postdoctoral fellowship at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, MLW and Institut de la Recherche pour le Developpement (IRD) – Noumea.
These were great experiences for me as I worked with experts in the fields of molecular biology and infectious disease.
How did you get into this subject area?
I will echo Isaac Newton’s quote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. I have had so many giants in my life who have encouraged me to pursue and supported me through my career. On the last day of my BSc course, the Head of Department called me and said, “sign these papers – it is an application for an MSc programme.” Six months later, I was registered with a full scholarship from the Belgium Technical Corporation through SADC.
Similarly, for my PhD, the Director of MLW at the time sent me a link to a funded PhD programme. I put together an application, was shortlisted for interviews and in less than six months, I was on one of the most prestigious fully funded PhD programmes in Europe. So, to answer how did I get into this, apart from the will and desire to be a scientist, I had great support from the scientific community and my family. I was surrounded by people who believed in me, encouraged me to dream further and achieve those dreams.
After the postdoctoral fellowship, I had to decide what I wanted to do. I realized I had all this scientific knowledge about infectious diseases in the communities around me, but that information could not reach them. So here we were trying to solve problems for communities that did not even know there was a problem or have awareness of the research breakthroughs. There was a gap of knowledge, and as long as this gap existed between researchers and communities, infectious disease prevention and control would not be easily achieved.
In 2014, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the knowledge gap became clear in the conflict it created between health professionals and communities. As health professionals worked hard to quarantine people to control the spread of the disease, people were trying to find treatment elsewhere, spreading the disease further. I decided to pursue infectious disease – something I had been thinking of for a long time – but focusing on its impact on communities and livelihoods. This was the beginning of my research on infectious disease prevention and control. I combined livelihoods and infectious disease research to better understand how diseases spread within communities and whether livelihoods impacted the spread, prevention, and control of these diseases.
I started my research by authoring a book on ‘Infectious Diseases and Rural Livelihoods in Developing Countries’ (2016) as a way to introduce the research concept to the world. Ever since, my research focus has been on infectious diseases in vulnerable populations, including rural populations, migrant populations, refugees, slum dwellers, and internally displaced populations.
My current project is sponsored by KMITL through the faculty research grant and is focussing on infectious diseases in vulnerable communities. I am grateful for the wonderful support from the management and staff at MD-KMITL and collaborators from Sirindhorn hospital, for their great support in setting up this project.
I am currently collaborating with researchers from University College London, University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee College of Nursing, Kamuzu University of Health Sciences (formally University of Malawi college of Medicine), and Universiti Malaya.
Any career highlights?
My career highlights include the publication of my first book, ‘Infectious Diseases and Rural Livelihoods in Developing Countries’, as this was the turning point in my career. I had found a niche that was my passion to pursue whole heartedly. The publication of my second book, ‘Skin Disorders in Populations, Causes, Impacts and Challenges’ (2020), is testament to my focus on neglected diseases and vulnerable populations.
Another highlight was participating in the annotation of the Plasmodium genome at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Hinxton, Cambridge and being a trainer for the international advanced course “Working with Pathogen Genomes”.
As an infectious disease researcher, working in different parts of the world (i.e. Malawi, Sweden, UK, New Caledonia, Thailand) with diverse communities, cultures and disease profiles has given me a perspective of disease prevention and management from different social, economic and cultural backgrounds.
The opportunity to be a pre-doctoral fellow with EMBL and Karolinska Institutet through the BIOMALPAR EU FP6 programme gave me the opportunity to study, attain skills, and interact with world class researchers as well as access to exceptional tools, equipment, and laboratories for molecular biology research.
The success was not without obstacles, some of the hurdles I have met in my career have also become my strengths in the long run. These include working in places where I am not fluent in the language, learning and adjusting to cultural expectations in these places as well as environment. The other hurdle is securing research funding, and sometimes people not believing that you can do what you claim you can. I overcame these hurdles by being more open minded, taking everything one day at a time and knowing who I am.
How does your work relate to SDG3?
My work is related with SDG3, “Ensure healthy lives and well-being for all at all ages”, specifically:
- target 3.3: By 2030, end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases, and other communicable diseases.
- target 3d: Strengthen the capacity of all countries, in particular developing countries, for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risks.
With a research focus on vulnerable populations, ensuring healthy lives and well-being for all is still a work in progress. Despite strides being made in some areas for target 3.3, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused interruptions that will considerably affect vaccination coverage as well as the progress that was made, for example in reducing malaria cases. Vulnerable populations who were already struggling to access their healthcare needs before the pandemic, may face even greater challenges at present and in the years to come post-pandemic.
Infectious diseases and livelihoods in vulnerable communities are also relevant to SDG1- No poverty, SDG2- Zero hunger, SDG4- Quality education, SDG5- Gender equality, SDG6- Clean water and sanitation, SDG8- Decent work and economic growth, SDG10- Reduced inequalities, SDG15- Life on land, and SDG16- Peace justice and strong institutions. In the book ‘Infectious Diseases and Rural Livelihood in Developing Countries’, I mention the vicious cycle of health, poverty, and livelihoods. All SDGs mentioned above affect health and well-being of populations and play a role in exacerbating poverty and livelihoods, which in turn impact their well-being.
What’s the most pressing research question in your field and/or your hopes for progress in the future?
The most pressing question in my field is on sustainable health systems in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), how it can be attained and what the best approach would be.
To achieve SDG3 targets, different tailored approaches will be required as each country is unique. In general, it will require countries to:
- Be able to manage and strengthen their health systems, making sure they are sustainable and have a buffer to absorb sudden events such as disease outbreaks, natural disasters, etc.
- Use local data (data from their health systems) to plan for surveillance and enhance preparedness.
- Be willing to work with their communities despite differences in their political, religious, social and/or cultural view.
- Be able to work together in a more inclusive manner so that all countries and territories could access the right information, tools, facilities and have the human capital to sustain their health systems. The pandemic has shown the global inequalities and challenges that exist for countries to work together in fighting the disease. Hopefully, the many lessons to be learned from how the pandemic has been handled can be used to build a better platform in constructing sustainable networks for surveillance and enhance preparedness at community, country, regional and global level.
- Recognize neglected communities and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Neglected communities, most of which are rural populations, are a breeding ground for many tropical diseases including NTDs. These communities are also the most marginalized and have poor access to healthcare. NTDs affect over 1 billion people globally, most of whom live under extreme poverty. As of 2018, 4 out of 5 of the poor lived in rural areas. Half of the population living in poverty are children and since the onset of the pandemic, there has been an increase in the number of people living in poverty. If SDG3 is to be achieved, this is where it would start. If these communities can achieve sustainable health coverage, the burden of communicable disease will be greatly reduced. The launch of the NTD Roadmap 2021-2030 is a good start.
Please tell us about a resource or person that has particularly inspired you?
What inspired me to pursue this career was a photo I saw of a lady who looked like me in a book when I was in secondary school. She was a scientist and I told myself I wanted to be like her. All through secondary school to university, that picture never left my mind. I look back today and see myself having come this far, and I am very honored and grateful to God.
My PhD mentor was also a great inspiration to me during the early phase of my career. I remember going to her one time, overwhelmed, and asking, “How can I manage to work in such a place?” She told me, “If you can survive here, you will survive anywhere in the world”. She is a very accomplished woman and I am very honored to have had her as my mentor. I look back and I never forget those words of encouragement. Whatever hurdle I encounter, I approach it remembering those words, “If you can survive here, you will survive anywhere in the world”.
You can find other posts in this collection here.
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