Combating AIDS in Malawi

July / August 2012 | Volume 11, Issue 4

Dr. Sam Phiri thought a lot about helping people when he was young, but he came from a humble background and access to education was difficult in Malawi. Nonetheless, he worked diligently at school and college, qualified as a clinical officer and began treating patients. Before long, the devastation of AIDS filled his days.

Dr. Sam Phiri seated at a desk
Photo courtesy of Dr. Sam Phiri

Dr. Sam Phiri

"I can tell you, it was quite depressing," Phiri recalled. "In the late '90s, you could see patients coming in with advanced AIDS. We were only able to provide some drugs for opportunistic infections and pain relief. Some of the patients were people I knew, some of them were members of staff."

He felt he needed to do more, so obtained a master's degree in sexually transmitted infections and HIV and a Ph.D. in clinical epidemiology both at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, supported by Fogarty's AIDS International Training and Research Program (AITRP).

With the skills he learned through AITRP support, he now trains and mentors others, obtains funding and manages clinical trials - all while running his country's largest HIV care organization, Lighthouse Trust, which handles more than 18,000 HIV and AIDS patients.

Under Phiri's leadership, Lighthouse, now a recognized WHO Center of Excellence, has been involved in numerous trials in key areas of HIV and AIDS management, including treating sexually transmitted infections to limit HIV risk, giving HIV-positive pregnant and lactating mothers antiretroviral treatment to prevent infection of their babies, and investigating how HIV and tuberculosis interact.

Just as he benefited from being trained by experts in another country, Phiri now trains not only Malawian students but also those who visit from abroad to learn more about HIV and AIDS in a setting where conditions and concerns are often different. As a UNC adjunct assistant professor, he teaches and mentors students from the U.S., U.K. and Germany.

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