Meet PATH’s Abdi Mohamed: Malaria fighter, world traveler, and lifelong learner

By Hope Randall
PATH Communications Associate

In the time it takes you to read this interview, Abdi Mohamed will have run 10 miles and finished one of his latest nonfiction reads. Okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement, but not much. Abdi, MACEPA’s Kenya Country Coordinator and Senior Technical Advisor, is a true renaissance man who doesn’t sit still for long. Here’s what he’s been up to in Kenya.

20141103_102039You have lived and worked in an impressive list of places: Somalia, Pakistan, Uganda, Zambia, India, and Kenya, to name a few! Where’s home?

Well, I like to say I have two homes: Somalia—a hot, sunny country in the horn of Africa—and Minnesota. I moved to Minneapolis with my family when I was twelve. I also lived in Illinois and Texas to pursue my medical education, but I returned to Minnesota to practice medicine later in my career. The winter months are tough, but I love the people there.

What brought you back to Africa, and to working in malaria specifically?

I am drawn to Africa because it is a complex and exciting continent. Diseases and social issues like poverty cannot be treated in isolation. Take the issue of clean water, for example; you can’t tell someone to drink clean water if there’s no infrastructure to provide it. Same goes with malaria; the problem is also an economic one.

I learned more about malaria when I was selected for the Child Survival and Infectious Disease Fellowship at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, during which I worked for three years in Zambia.

It sounds like a great foundation for the malaria work you’re currently managing in Kenya. Can you talk more about that?

Kenya has made a lot of progress against malaria, but the burden is still very high in Nyanza Province, so that’s where we are focusing our efforts. We know that elimination is possible because it has been done elsewhere, but because this region of Kenya remains a persistent challenge, we are tackling the problem from multiple angles.

First, we are optimizing and enhancing all the prevention and treatment interventions that currently exist: ensuring a steady supply of commodities—drugs, rapid diagnostic tests, etc.—and bednets, and training health workers to properly diagnose and treat malaria.

Second, we are building health care worker capacity with mobile technology training. Kenya was among the first countries in Africa to adopt mobile technology, so the highly developed infrastructure support is a great advantage. The use of mobile phones to track data will help us justify our investments in malaria, to show that they are working.

And we also are working with the Kenya Medical Research Institute [KEMRI] on a research portfolio of potential new approaches to fight malaria.

That sounds like a lot of work! What’s the hardest part?

Well, the extent of the malaria burden in Nyanza is probably the biggest challenge. It requires us to come at the problem by optimizing everything we have at our disposal, and putting all the pieces together can be difficult at times. And encouraging people to change or try a new method is always difficult, whether it’s community members using bednets or health workers using mobile phones to track data. People don’t always like change.

What has been most rewarding?

Definitely the partnerships. What we’re doing in Kenya isn’t new, but it hasn’t been done here before, so all of us depend on each other to successfully execute complementary activities. I work with colleagues at every level, from county and district representatives to national government stakeholders. We are all working toward the same goal, which is bigger than any of us could have achieved alone, and in the end, the success belongs to all of Kenya.

When you’re not working to bring down the malaria burden in Kenya, what do you like to do with your free time?

I’m a long distance runner, and I average about four marathons per year, so I’m in constant training. And I have two small children, so introducing them to a new country keeps me busy, too.

I also read a lot, whether it’s global development or history or biography. [Editor’s note: In case you’re interested, Abdi’s latest book recommendations are: The Cost of Hope by Amanda Bennett, Collapse by Jarret Diamond, and Being Mortal by Atul Gwande.] And I love music; I’ve always been fascinated by how people use music to express themselves. I would say Arabic and Somali music are my favorite.

Once a week, I volunteer at a local clinic seeing patients and teaching the students and residents there. There is an incredible shortage of health workers, and I have a longing to contribute and share what I know.

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