Epidemiologist Barbara Burmen from Kenya was honoured for her innovative approaches to HIV testing in the Kenyan population, and for her personal and professional mentorship activity with younger colleagues. She receives the TWAS-Abdool Karim Prize also for her research on people with tuberculosis (TB).
Burmen is a senior research officer and HIV & TB implementation science leader at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, Center for Global Health Research in Kisumu, Kenya. She has served as a medical officer both in the private and in the public sector in Kenya.
"The TWAS award is truly an honour in my career: it's a chance to be internationally recognized as an early-career female scientist already making a significant contribution to the advancement of my field," said Burmen who has over ten years experience in HIV programmes, both in the public and in the private sector. And she added: "This award will make my grant applications stand out and give me a competitive edge against my peers. Being the recipient of research grants through a competitive process, will put me on the right track to an independent scientific career."
She works in HIV and TB operations research. Clinical trials offer evidence based information on the right patients who need health interventions. However, they do not operate in real world settings. "This is where operations research comes in, to identify factors under managerial control that could help make better decisions in scaling up evidence-based health interventions," Burmen maintained. "Operations research does this by testing service delivery innovations or comparing different practices, in order to identify a best practice, or review routinely collected data to provide empirical evidence to support managerial decisions."
Globally, Kenya is among the most heavily affected countries by HIV. About 1.6 million people live with HIV, with an average of 62,000 new infections per year. HIV programmes delivered in the last two decades have proven successful, but there is still much left to do. Testing services still do not reach everyone in need, and according to some estimates, 53% of the 1.6 million people living with HIV in Kenya are unaware of their status.
That's why Burmen conducted some studies and evaluations at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital (JOOTRH) HIV Clinic, to increase populations' access to HIV knowledge and optimize HIV health services.
She proposed to offer HIV interviews and testing to grieving persons visiting the funeral home after beloved ones passed away. This improved people's knowledge of their HIV status, and provided the government with more awareness of their health-related needs. At JOOTRH HIV Clinic she introduced important innovations. "From a patient flow analysis, I realized that a great part of the time patients spent at the hospital, especially at the JOOTRH funeral home, was wasted time," she observed. Dr. Burmen also introduced an "express nursing desk" to reduce the time that patients wait at hospital for simple things such as a prescription refill.
Tuberculosis is another health challenge for Kenyans and the nation's medical system. Burmen has introduced different screening methods to determine the eligibility of people to receive costly treatments.
Kenya is one of the 22 TB high burden countries, and it has been given the highest priority at global level: all together these countries accounted for 83% of the TB incident cases in 2014 [The incidence is the number of new cases of active TB disease in a population during a year]. In 2015 about 82,000 people were diagnosed with TB, while about 20% of cases are still undetected and remain untreated. Quite often people who are HIV-positive are also TB-positive, even if they show no symptoms. In these cases, patients should be screened and receive TB preventative or curative treatment. TB preventative therapy is done with a drug called isoniazid (IPT).
Burmen has reviewed different screening methods to determine the eligibility of people to receive Tuberculosis Preventative Therapy. This revealed that the current TB screening algorithm to determine IPT eligibility for HIV infected patients was not specific in excluding patients who were not eligible for IPT administration; patients on this therapy, therefore, require regular assessments to determine the need to stop preventative therapy and begin curative therapy.
Barbara Burmen's ability to coordinate projects is incredibly high. She has provided oversight over a study on pediatric HIV care in more than 50 health facilities in Kenya, acting also as a principal investigator and study coordinator on tubercolosis screening among people living with HIV, in 15 HIV treatment sites and on 800 HIV infected people.
Her mentorship activity is equally worth noting. She volunteered as a mentor on AuthorAID, an international network of scientific publications, where she assisted in data analysis and in preparing publications. "My profile was online and I established many useful connections: people could immediately understand if I could help them or not," she explained.
In addition, she has acted as a personal and professional mentor to improve the scientific productivity and outputs of many colleagues. A number of them have later obtained higher-level positions and more qualified tasks at the national level.
Her involvement in data collection, writing of reports and integrated analysis is equally intense. She is active on concept development, proposal writing and dissemination of scientific products. As of 2016, she has authored 22 research publications related to HIV implementation science, 16 of them as a first author and has made presentations at 15 international conferences.
In recognition of her efforts to change the health care system in Kenya, Dr. Burmen has also received numerous awards, including the Mohan Lumba "Young Scientist Award" (2011); the first prize for the 2016 edition of the American Journal of Experts Gold Medal; and a honorable mention at 2016's African Society of Laboratory's Medicine Best Laboratory Clinician Champion.
Her commitment to giving contributions to local and international communities has brought significant improvements at the interface between clinics and laboratory, with an impact on the development of innovative laboratory policies. "The TWAS-Abdool Karim Prize is an inspiration to continue working diligently to improve population health in the developing world through health operations research," Burmen said.
Regarding the future, she added: "The next logical step in my career is to complete my doctoral studies and obtain research funding.” And then, on another side: "I want to continue my mentoring activity: I learned a lot from people who mentored me, and I want to pass this gift on to someone else."
TWAS-Abdool Karim Prize
The TWAS - Abdool Karim Prize is named after TWAS Fellow Quarraisha Abdool Karim, who is generously offering a cash award of USD5,000. The prize is designed to honour women scientists in Low Income African countries for their achievements in Biological Sciences.
Quarraisha Abdool Karim is the scientific director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) in Durban, South Africa, which she co-founded in 2002. A pioneer of life-saving research that protects African women from HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, her groundbreaking discovery - a gel called tenofovir that, if topically applied to the genital area, reduced HIV infection in women by 39% - won her international headlines in the New York Times, The Guardian, Washington Post, Nature and the Wall Street Journal. In 2014 Quarraisha Abdool Karim was named winner of the 2014 TWAS-Lenovo Science Prize. She was elected to TWAS in 2015.
The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries – TWAS – works to advance sustainable prosperity through research, education, policy and diplomacy. TWAS was founded in 1983 by a distinguished group of scientists from the developing world, under the leadership of Abdus Salam, the Pakistani physicist and Nobel Prize winner. Today, TWAS has more than 1,200 elected Fellows from 96 countries; 15 of them are Nobel laureates. The Academy is based in Trieste, Italy, on the campus of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). Through more than three decades, its mission has focused on supporting and promoting excellence in scientific research in the developing world and applying scientific and engineering research to address global challenges. TWAS receives core funding from the Government of Italy (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) administer TWAS funds and personnel. Follow TWAS on Facebook or Twitter (@TWASnews) or visit the Academy's website at www.twas.org.