Standout voices in African public health
These are some of the notables making a new path for the field. They represent an increasingly deep bench of leaders shaping policy and practice on the continent.
Quarraisha Abdool Karim
Notable for: Developing HIV prevention solutions for women. Led South Africa’s first community-based HIV prevalence study in 1990, discovering disproportionately high rates of infection among adolescent girls. Helped establish and is associate scientific director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA). Developed several woman-controlled HIV prevention methods, including vaginal microbicides. Co-chairs a UN expert group advising governments on using science and technology for sustainable development. Is a professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. — Linda Nordling
Salim Abdool Karim
Notable for: Prevention and treatment of HIV and tuberculosis. Karim’s clinical research revealed that antiretrovirals can prevent sexually transmitted HIV infection and genital herpes in women. Co-invented patents used in HIV vaccine candidates. Leads the South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19. Chairs the UNAIDS Scientific Expert Panel and WHO’s HIV Strategic and Technical Advisory Committee, and is a member of the WHO TB-HIV Task Force. — Gilbert Nakweya
Akinwumi A. Adesina
Notable for: Boosting food security. As Nigeria’s minister of agriculture and rural development, leveraged mobile phones to increase access to improved seeds and fertilizers for 15 million farmers, boosting food production by 21 million metric tons. Rooted out corruption in Nigeria’s agriculture sector, prompting Forbes Africa magazine to name him its Person of the Year in 2013. An economist, he is currently in his second term as president of the African Development Bank Group. — Esther Nakkazi
Notable for: Global health equity and social justice. Vice chancellor and co-founder of Rwanda’s University of Global Health Equity, an initiative of Partners In Health. UGHE aims to refocus health education on expanding access to services. As Rwanda’s minister of health became known for #MinisterMondays, regular Twitter discussions on global health policy. — Esther Nakkazi
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Notable for: Expanding access to health services. As UNAIDS executive director, drives attention to the public health impacts of social justice and gender equality. Works to remove barriers to health services for women and vulnerable groups through the elimination of discriminatory laws. Has expanded HIV/AIDS prevention, testing, and treatment services to key populations. — Paul Adepoju
Notable for: Drug discovery in Africa. In 2010, Zambia-born Chibale founded his drug discovery and development center H3D at the University of Cape Town, where his team developed antimalarial drugs now in early-phase human clinical trials – a first for an African drug discovery team. Works to optimize medicines for African populations, by studying how their livers digest common drugs. Also collaborates with industry to create jobs for young African scientists. — Linda Nordling
Mohammed Malick Fall
Notable for: Response to COVID-19. As UNICEF regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, the native of Senegal led a large team to coordinate responses to COVID-19 across the continent. Worked with countries and other partners to procure, mobilize, and distribute vaccine doses and other tools to fend off the pandemic. Has been involved in UN initiatives in Afghanistan, France, Haiti, Indonesia, Mongolia, and Switzerland. —Paul Adepoju
Notable for: Supply chain logistics. Nigerian entrepreneur who founded LifeBank, a healthcare technology and logistics company that started with improving access to blood units for transfusion services in Nigeria and beyond. Has since expanded into medical oxygen access for patients. She works to develop and spread technologies that can be used to predict need for health commodities to create more efficient supply chains. — Paul Adepoju
The professor of molecular biology and genomics at Nigeria’s Redeemer’s University leads a center crucial for pathogen genomic surveillance in Africa. It serves as a reference laboratory for the WHO and Africa CDC. Produced the continent’s first genomic sequence for COVID-19. Also helps other African countries with sequencing, research, and more. —Paul Adepoj
Notable for: Health care systems research and capacity building. Worked as a medical officer in rural Uganda and as a lecturer at Mbarara University of Science and Technology. A 2019 Joep Lange Chair at the University of Amsterdam where she investigates chronic disease management in Africa. Co-directs the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa which trains early-career researchers at PhD and post-doctoral level, and heads the African Population and Health Research Center. — Gilbert Nakweya
Notable for: Menstrual hygiene and sanitation. South African businesswoman, social entrepreneur, and activist. Started the Mina Foundation to develop a sustainable, healthy, and eco-friendly alternative to current methods of period care. Mina menstrual cups have been distributed to more than 70,000 women through partnerships in six countries in Africa and the Middle East. Works to normalize menstruation promote period positivity and keep young women and girls in school during their periods. — Esther Nakkazi
Notable for: Genomic research, advocacy, and awareness for sickle cell disease in Africa. Established the world’s largest study center for sickle cell disease at Tanzania’s Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences. Founded the Sickle Cell Foundation of Tanzania to raise awareness of the disease. Makani is the principal investigator for the Sickle Pan African Research Consortium under the Sickle In Africa network. — Gilbert Nakweya
Notable for: Improving access to maternal health for women in rural areas. Registered nurse-midwife based in Lesotho. During the pandemic traveled by donkey and on foot into rural Lesotho to bring maternal care services, healthcare, and contraceptives. Named a Bill Gates’ Heroes in the Field. A Shedecides leader for Lesotho, educating young people on child marriages, consent, and teenage pregnancy. Board member of Safe Abortion Action Fund in London. — Esther Nakkazi
Notable for: Increasing vaccine access. Zimbabwean billionaire businessman and philanthropist was engaged to lead the African Union‘s African Vaccine Acquisition Trust. Actively highlighted the vaccine inequity that plagued the early months of COVID-19 vaccination rollout. Led discussions and negotiations that resulted in the availability of vaccine doses from several sources, including the fill-and-finish agreement bringing the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to Africa. — Paul Adepoju
Notable for: Reducing inequity. First female World Health Organization regional director for Africa. Marshaled global health actions by providing direction, leadership, and access to support for health ministries across Africa. Brought attention to health inequities and coordinated WHO response to COVID outbreaks across the continent through measures such as helping Somalia acquire medical oxygen infrastructure. Working to help African countries prepare for future pandemics. — Paul Adepoju
Notable for: The discovery of Ebola virus disease. The Congolese microbiologist leads public health emergency responses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including for COVID-19. He led the design of Ebola treatment and pioneered the deployment of experimental Ebola vaccines. Heads the DRC’s Institut National de la Recherche Biomédicale, a significant contributor to global knowledge of infectious diseases. — Paul Adepoju
Notable for: Research on the immune system. Discovered a mechanism for T-cell generation, showed how influenza interferes with the immune system’s antibodies, and proposed an explanation for the idea of original antigenic sin, a well-known phenomenon in immunologic response systems. The Cameroonian virologist’s work could lead to the development of ‘zero-interference’ vaccines, expected to improve immune response. Currently chief scientific officer of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Global Network. — Esther Nakkazi
John N. Nkengasong
Notable for: Public health leadership. Cameroonian virologist was the first head of the Africa CDC and helped build frameworks for stronger health systems across Africa, emphasizing cross-border collaboration, capacity building, and resource mobilization. Led the African Union’s public health agency in responding to Ebola, Lassa fever, and COVID-19. First African to head PEPFAR, the U.S’s global effort to combat HIV/AIDS. —Paul Adepoju
Notable for: Healthcare systems innovation and reform. In Nigeria, galvanized efforts to reduce polio and drove innovation across the country’s health sector, including launching the Midwives’ Service Scheme to help reduce maternal and childhood mortality. At the World Bank, Pate initiated a $100 million private-public partnership in Lesotho to build a new national referral hospital, completed in 2011. This was one of the first such development efforts in the health care sector in Africa. Co-chairs a Lancet commission aiming to improve global health systems and teaches at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. — Michael Fitzgerald
Notable for: Translating health research into policy and practice. An anti-apartheid activist doctor, she has led the Reproductive Health and HIV Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg since 1994. Has served on a multitude of global health advisory bodies and committees on vaccines. Advises the South African government on Covid variants and vaccines. Co-leads South Africa’s arm on the WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Therapeutics Trial. Chairs the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority and fought vaccine disinformation during the pandemic. — Linda Nordling
David Moinina Sengeh
Notable for: Policy innovation. Being Chief Innovation Officer for Sierra Leone and also its minister for basic and secondary education does not sound like a public health job. But Sengeh and his team at the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation became the fulcrum for the country’s fight against COVID-19, providing data and analysis to shape emergency response, lockdown policies, and school closings and reopenings. It also developed tools to share information with the populace, such as the Moi Minute, public health messages Sengeh recorded that were on Youtube and TV. — Michael Fitzgerald
Notable for: Academic leadership. First Black female president and youngest ever (at age 39) of the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa, only the third woman president in its 66 years. CMSA sets the country’s standards for medical and dental education and care. She is deputy dean of health stakeholder relations at the University of Pretoria, Faculty of Health Sciences. Chairs the WHO/Afro African Advisory Committee on Research and Development (AACHRD). — Esther Nakkazi
Notable for: Rallying support for the African Medicines Agency, established to coordinate pan-African regulatory structures and standards. Left position as Mali’s minister of health and social affairs to become African Union special envoy, lobbying governments to sign and ratify the AMA treaty. Helped establish the AMA. Had been the second executive director of UNAIDS. — Paul Adepoju
Notable for: Researching viruses. Established the African Regional Polio Laboratory Network, helping nearly eradicate poliovirus infections. Has studied Ebola, Lassa fever, Yellow fever, and Chikungunya, a virus that causes joints to swell. The Nigerian virologist, who also holds a DVM in veterinary medicine, isolated the properties of the Orungo arbovirus, which can cause encephalitis. — Esther Nakkazi
Notable for: Vaccine manufacturing. Spearheading Egypt’s private sector COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing initiative. Leads Egypt’s largest vaccine production facility, which has produced tens of millions of doses of the Sinovac vaccine. Plays a key role in helping the continent fulfill its goal of producing 60% of its own vaccines by 2040, developing vaccine production partnerships and transfer of vaccine manufacturing technology in other parts of Africa. — Paul Adepoju
This story has been updated to clarify Quarraisha Abdool Karim’s role in developing HIV prevention methods.
Contributors: Paul Adepoju is a Nigerian science journalist. Esther Nakkazi is a Ugandan science journalist and blogger. Gilbert Nakweya is a Kenyan science journalist. Linda Nordling is a science journalist based in South Africa. Michael Fitzgerald is Editor-in-Chief of Harvard Public Health.
Photos: Quarraisha Abdool Karim: Rajesh Jantilal; Salim Abdool Karim: Dean Demos, CAPRISA; Adesina: AfDB; Binagwaho: Courtesy of Agnes Binagwaho; Chibale: University of Capetown; Giwa-Tubosun: Courtesy of Temie Giwa-Tubosun; Happi, Moeti, Muyembe, and Nkengasong: Paul Adepoju; Kyobutungi: Florence Sipalla, APHRC; Mahomed: Courtesy of Zaakira Mahomed; Makhele: Lee-Ann Olwage; Masiyiwa: Gus Ruelas / Rueters; Ndifon: AIMS; Pate: Harvard Chan School; Rees: Wits University; Senkubuge: Courtesy of Flavia Senkubuge; Tomori: Courtesy of Oyewale Tomori.