By Karin Zeitvogel
As a teenager in medical school in South Africa, Dr. Vivek Naranbhai was impatient and thinking of changing career tracks. “I wasn’t learning what I wanted to learn, things that would allow me to bring positive change in the world,” Naranbhai said. Then, in 2004, he met longtime NIH grantee, Dr. Quarraisha Abdool Karim, and began working with her at the
Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA). Their Fogarty-supported project looked at the mortality of patients starting on antiretrovirals (ARVs), which were only just being rolled out in South Africa after a protracted fight with the government.
“Patients were dying within months of starting ARVs, and word was getting around that this was because of the drugs, which we knew was not true,” Naranbhai said. “We wanted to figure out why there was this increase in mortality and our research showed it was largely because people were starting on ARVs so late that they already had a burden of opportunistic infections.”
After working for more than a year alongside Abdool Karim, Naranbhai was named a fellow in the Fogarty-Ellison International Clinical Research Training Program in 2006. The yearlong fellowship allowed him to travel to the United States, attend lectures at NIH, meet other scientists and conduct research. The experience changed his outlook and confirmed for Naranbhai that his future lay in global health.
“It was my first time in an academic center outside of South Africa, and I came to understand that, although I’m from the developing world, I’m as capable as anyone else of doing clinical research that helps patients in South Africa and globally,” Naranbhai said. “I understood that I wasn’t just an inconsequential, second-rate doctor from a backwater in South Africa.”
Naranbhai was paired for his fellowship with University of Washington in St. Louis medical student James Hudspeth. After spending time at NIH, the two did research together in South Africa. Naranbhai says this bidirectionality is a key reason Fogarty fellowships are so rewarding and constructive. “Fogarty gives young researchers from developing countries the opportunity to meet like-minded people from other parts of the world, to work together as equals and have conversations from which both sides learn valuable lessons.”
A firm believer in continual personal improvement, Naranbhai went on to do a second Ph.D. in clinical medicine at the University of Oxford, adding it to the doctorate in virology he already had from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He drew on his education, his experience as a Fogarty fellow and his background growing up in a developing country when, as a resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2017-18, he correctly diagnosed an American woman with scurvy. The disease, caused by poor nutrition and a lack of vitamin C, is rare in high-income countries like the U.S. The woman had been in and out of hospital for months.
Once he has completed his residency, Naranbhai envisages having a basic science laboratory and helping to conduct clinical trials - in other words, “to be involved in translational medicine,” he explained.
“Of course, if you work in a place like South Africa, that comes with the obligation to build capacity,” Naranbhai added. “But the relative investment in training is much less than if you’re funding a clinical trial or the development of a drug - and you can’t do any of that, anyway, without human capacity.
“Fogarty realized that and has a model that works well,” he said. “It creates a global village of people who want to positively change the world. It provided us with an ideal of how we can do good in the world, and for those reasons, Fogarty is very important for everyone.”