Building research capacity in East Africa with the One Health Initiative
March/ April 2022 | Volume 21 Number 2
Courtesy of Wondwossen GebreyesGebreyes, right, visit fellows at Sokoine University in Tanzania. He received the NIH Gold medallion in 2019 and was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2021.
Dr. Wondwossen Gebreyes began his research career as a veterinarian in Ethiopia in the early 1990s, where he says, "I was raising chickens to support my education." He migrated to the U.S. in 1995. His first job there? Working as a parking attendant at NIH, an agency that would ultimately play a significant role in his future career.
"I remember working at different parts of the NIH campus in the late 1990s, mainly across from building 31, the main office space for institute directors and their staff," said Gebreyes.
Dr. Gebreyes, who was born in Ethiopia, received his doctoral degree in veterinary medicine (DVM) from Addis Ababa University in 1990. At the time, the country was still in the midst of a civil war that began in 1974. By the official end of the war, experts estimate that at least 1 million people had died due to famine and combat violence. As a veterinarian, he practiced in the rural areas of Ethiopia, "I saw firsthand the devastating effects that infectious diseases, parasites, and antimicrobial resistance can have on these communities."
Shortly after moving to the U.S., he was accepted into a Ph.D. program at North Carolina State University, eventually joining the faculty. Now at Ohio State, he is a Hazel C. Youngberg Distinguished Professor in molecular epidemiology, executive director of the
Global One Health initiative and was recently elected to the National Academy of Medicine. This initiative works to improve the health of communities, build capacity among public health professionals, and provide learning opportunities for students, faculty, and staff around the world.
Since 2010, Dr. Gebreyes has led a Fogarty-funded program establishing sustainable research and training capacity for foodborne pathogen research in East African academic institutions. The ultimate goal of this program is to build a critical mass of capable scientists that can effectively conduct research on zoonotic diseases and implement prevention and control systems.
To date, this program has established four laboratories in East African universities, trained 28 Ph.D. fellows, more than 40 laboratory technologists, and established a culture of high quality, ethical research in areas such as molecular epidemiology. "This Fogarty project has allowed us to bring something unique to the region. Most students in this area are taught through a didactic curriculum, and it is not often that you are able to integrate a research project and training program," said Gebreyes. "If we had to do this training program in the U.S., we would have only been able to train a fraction of students compared to what we have been able to do here in the region with the Fogarty system."
Being a part of the Ethiopian diaspora here in the U.S. has opened many doors for Gebreyes' work in East Africa over the last 12 years. "Making progress in a short period is much easier when you know the culture and how people think and work there. Establishing partnerships and being taken seriously on a political level happens so much faster, which is a huge added value to a project like this."
The project's next phase offers more opportunities for predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships applying genomic technologies and integrating diagnostics and tracking of diseases like rotavirus, salmonellosis, tuberculosis, and leishmaniasis research. Gebreyes also hopes to strengthen collaborations between veterinarians, physicians, and environmental health scientists in East Africa to address zoonotic diseases using the One Health Model. Gebreyes says, "Fogarty's research training and capacity building programs have been instrumental in this region, and around the globe. We are all so grateful for their support."
Updated April 19, 2022
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