Improving HIV treatment outcomes in Africa
Student integrates public health into bedside medicine to improve HIV care.
Dr. Jane Mutanga-Mutembo, a physician and doctoral student in epidemiology at the University of Georgia College of Public Health, has spent nearly a decade working with children living with HIV in her native Zambia.
More than two-thirds of all people living with HIV — 24.7 million — live in sub-Saharan Africa, including 91 percent of the world’s HIV-positive children.
“HIV has changed from being an acute condition to a chronic disease that people can live with for a long time as a result of antiretroviral medication,” said Mutanga-Mutembo, who also holds a clinical position in the Department in Pediatrics and Child Health at Zambia’s Livingstone General Hospital. “As a result, I watched a lot of my children grow up and encounter new challenges in their lives.”
These challenges, which included access to food, shelter, familial support, income or educational opportunities, all dramatically affected her patients’ drug adherence and treatment.
“Listening to my patients’ struggles, I discovered there was more to treatment than giving someone medication and doing lab tests,” Mutanga-Mutembo said. “I was drawn to public health when I realized my patients had common problems that could be addressed by looking at them as a whole population.”
Motivated by a desire to tackle these gaps in her patients’ care, Mutanga-Mutembo traveled to the U.S. on a Fulbright fellowship in 2010. She completed a Master of Public Health in epidemiology at the UGA College of Public Health in 2012, but returned in 2013 to finish a Ph.D. under the mentorship of Dr. Christopher Whalen, the college’s Ernest Corn Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology.
Working with Whalen, she is combining skills in medicine, data analysis, computer programming and community health to study the dynamics of tuberculosis transmission among social networks in Kampala, Uganda.
For her most recent project, Mutanga-Mutembo is working on developing mobile technology to help people living with HIV maintain good adherence to lifelong medication regimens needed to keep the virus suppressed.
“Antiretroviral medication must be taken consistently to make sure the HIV virus is suppressed,” she said. “A lot of my young patients are orphans who are being looked after by their grandparents, older siblings or other relatives. It’s challenging to make sure that they take their medications correctly and daily.”
Mutanga-Mutembo plans to address this issue by developing mobile technology capable of sending interactive text messages that remind caregivers about when medications need to be taken while keeping track of the patient’s adherence to treatment.
Mobile phones have become widely available in Zambia and most of Africa. According to current estimates, nearly 78 percent of Zambia’s adult population owns a mobile phone.
By building on mobile-health solutions currently supported by the Zambian government, Mutanga-Mutembo hopes to be able to offer the service free of charge. If successful, this new technology could be expanded to help patients manage other chronic diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes.
Her e-mobile project is being supported through a 2015-2016 Schlumberger Foundation Faculty for the Future Fellowship. The one-year renewable grant provides female scientists from developing and emerging countries up to $50,000 to pursue advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics—commonly known as STEM—fields.
— Rebecca Ayer, College of Public Health