MUSC professor uses statistical modeling to design public health interventions in East Africa

Limits in public funding do not stop academic institutions from investing human and financial resources in research, if not to seek larger funds, to create momentum in boosting scientific innovation. “One of the main challenges sustaining my global health project in Ethiopia was securing some type of funding,” said Mulugeta Gebregziabher, PhD, Associate Professor of biostatistics in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). “When you have funding and backing from an institution like MUSC it establishes confidence in your own research and credibility in your endeavor to pursue partnerships with global higher learning and research institutions.”

Gebregziabher was recently awarded a $20,000 pilot grant from the Center for Global Health to further understand factors associated with regional and spatiotemporal variation in HIV testing and HIV infection using the demographic health survey (DHS) data. He is collaborating with a multidisciplinary team of scientists at MUSC and Mekelle University in Tigray, Ethiopia. His study is notable because it seeks to provide guidance on how to increase HIV testing uptake by identifying factors that can be used as inputs in designing public health interventions. His grant also aims to create partnerships that lead to the most appropriate use of research capacity in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Ethiopia.

“HIV/AIDS prevalence is particularly high in sub-Saharan Africa despite the low HIV testing rates,” said Gebregziabher. “This is evidenced by data from the recent DHS. This is a large reason why we are collaborating with our Ethiopian colleagues in a research capacity building on study design and data analysis which will be instrumental to push a research and data-driven agenda and sustainability of our partnerships.”

The progress Gebregziabher has made to date was not without its challenges. Funding, again, was half of the battle. Getting buy-in from the appropriate stakeholders in the global public health research community was another challenge. “The time it took to establish official partnership was lengthy,” explained Gebregziabher. “We are now better positioned to seek more resources with the newly signed memorandum of understanding between out Ethiopian colleagues at Mekelle University and MUSC.”

The work it takes to initiate an international collaboration can seem daunting. Identifying experts to provide in-country support, particularly biostatistics in resource limited countries, was a challenge that Gebregziabher was eager to remedy. “There weren’t many programs that could maintain the needed capacity for statistical expertise in some parts of east Africa,” said Gebregziabher.

He started his collaborations by offering trainings and introductions to complex quantitative analysis to public health researchers in Ethiopia. He is optimistic by the current trend in the number of universities that offer training in public health and biostatistics. Governments have also started to realize the importance of policy driven by data and hence their desire for more public health and biomedical research capacity is on the rise. He recalls a time when there was only one statistics department in his home country, Ethiopia. Fewer programs meant fewer graduates who could contribute their skill to the demand for complex research analysis.   

Gebregziabher’s work is now bolstered by the relationships he has made and the resources he now has access to. To be successful, international agreements have to have the backing of academe, government and sometimes non-governmental representatives to establish an effective framework as foundation to a working partnership.

“Given the scope of projects like these, I’m sure people will continue to partner just to learn and gain experience finding solutions to contemporary global health problems using data,” said Gebregziabher.

If anyone knows anything about funding global health initiatives, it is Microsoft founder, Bill Gates. Gates committed $50 million just last month to combat the singular, yet dominant global health issue of the day, the Ebola crises in West Africa. While Gebregziabher was on a working visit in Ethiopia this past July, the world’s wealthiest man was receiving an honorary degree from Addis Ababa University, Gebergziabher’s Alma mater. What struck Gebregziabher most from Gates’ speech was a sentiment that is increasingly being expressed in communities across an interconnected world. Gates said,“We were looking for the most strategic way to fight inequality so that our resources did the greatest good for the greatest number. Investing in health generates extremely high returns for huge numbers of people.”