Mina Hosseinipour, MD, MPH, the clinical director of the University of North Carolina’s Project-Malawi (UNC Project), claims to be a bit of a late bloomer in the field of global health. While many young people now get their first experiences in high school or college, her interest didn’t really come about until she was in residency at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. During her residency, she interacted with large immigrant populations, particularly from Mexico, Central America and Nigeria, that introduced her to tropical infectious diseases and HIV. At the same time, antiretroviral therapy (ART) was introduced in the US, transitioning AIDS from a death sentence to a treatable condition.
But ART was expensive. Hosseinipour realized that this lifesaving medication was not reaching those in developing countries, particularly in Africa where HIV infection rates were shockingly high.
“As a young physician, I saw the potential to make an enormous and lasting impact on the global AIDS epidemic,” says Hosseinipour. “When choosing an infectious disease fellowship program, I only looked at those that had established activities in developing countries and strong schools of public health.”
She found that UNC-Chapel Hill fit her criteria. After completing Infectious Disease clinical training and MPH requirements, she went to Malawi for the third year of a fellowship to start her HIV research career.
Although she was there primarily to start an NIH-sponsored clinical trial, within days of arrival in Malawi, Triomune, the first triple combination ART arrived for paying clients. Hosseinipour was there in the outpatient clinic dispensing the medication to the lucky few who could afford it. In no time, as one of very few infectious disease-trained physicians in the country, Hosseinipour was suddenly involved in developing ART and opportunistic infections guidelines, ART training curriculums, and scale-up plans for the entire country.
She says she finds it humbling to think that she was part of a team that took Malawi from 60 patients that were receiving treatment in the first year, to the current number of over 300,000.
After her fellowship in Malawi, Hosseinipour was hired on to the faculty at UCN-Chapel Hill. “Being in the right place at the right time undoubtedly helped me to capitalize on the changing ART environment to build a research career focused on best practices in delivering ART in resource-limited settings,” she says.
Since 1990, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been collaborating with the Ministry of Health in Malawi and by 1999 UNC’s activities there were consolidated into UNC Project-Malawi, a center of excellence for HIV/STD research, care and training. UNC research projects have included improving the treatment of STDs and reducing adult and mother-to-child transmission of HIV. UNC Project is based on the campus of Kamuzu Central Hospital in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, and is a 1,000-bed, public tertiary care hospital operated by the MOH that serves a population of nearly four million people. UNC works in partnership with several important international organizations, including UNICEF and The World Food Programme, to develop care and support programs for people in Malawi. And UNC Project-Malawi serves as a training site of the NIH Fogarty International Center’s AIDS International Training and Research Program.
“Now, I see my role as transferring the skills I have learned over the years to the next generation of global health researchers, both from Malawi and the United States,” says Hosseinipour. “Despite the advances that have been made in the ART program, HIV is still a life-long disease and, therefore, new questions will always arise.”