Dr. Akudo Anyanwu Ikemba '97
Dr. Akudo Anyanwu Ikemba '97 looks out from her office in Lagos, Nigeria, upon a continent in grave danger.
About 70 percent of the world's HIV-positive people live in sub-Saharan Africa; AIDS is Africa's leading cause of death, and millions are newly infected each year. More than 1.5 million tuberculosis cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa each year, a number that has risen rapidly with HIV's prevalence. And about 90 percent of the world's malaria deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa -- about 3,000 per day, mostly children.
The three pandemics account for about 6 million deaths per year in Africa.
But as these diseases wage war on Africa, Ikemba is waging war on them. She's the founding CEO of Friends of the Global Fund Africa, an international nonprofit organization launched last year to engage African political and business leaders, as well as civil society, in supporting the $9.6 billion Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
"There are two problems: getting the world to wake up to the problem in Africa and getting Africa to wake up to the problem in Africa. I would say the world is more aware than what we've seen within Africa," Ikemba says, although some African nations have made great strides in addressing their public health crises.
"We have an incredible set of people behind us -- an incredible board of directors from all of Africa and an incredible advisory board -- so I believe we're destined for success."
Those board members are government ministers, international bankers, public health experts, clergy, and others, all working to keep Africa alive and healthy by promoting understanding and mobilizing regional support to focus the Global Fund's money where it will do the most good.
The Global Fund was launched in 2002 to attract, manage, and disburse resources to fight the three pandemics. It doesn't implement programs directly, but instead relies on local experts' knowledge. It has approved more than 450 grants totaling $7.6 billion in 136 countries, with more than half that money going to Africa.
So, for example, hundreds of thousands of people in nations such as Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and Burundi have been provided with antiretroviral therapy and other support to combat AIDS; front-line tuberculosis treatment has been expanded in nations including Somalia, Sierra Leone, and Ghana; and millions of insecticide-treated mosquito nets have sprung up in nations such as Niger, Madagascar, and Zambia to stop malaria's spread.
Ikemba says she thinks of herself as "a citizen of many places." She was born in Philadelphia and lived there until age 4, when her parents -- Nigerian educators who'd lived in the United States for more than 20 years -- decided to return to their homeland. She attended Nigerian elementary and secondary schools, but returned to America to pursue a bachelor's degree in molecular biology at Lehigh.
"That, to me, was the best preparation for the hard-core science I thought I was heading into, and it did serve as a wonderful basis for medical school," she says. "And while I was there for the hard-core science, one of the deepest experiences I had was in studying Africana studies with Professor Bill Scott. I was able to tap into the intricacies of African history while getting a hard-core science education. He was a great mentor of mine."
While at Lehigh, Ikemba became great friends with fellow student Shilpa Sayana '97. Today, Sayana is a doctor involved in fighting AIDS in Africa as well. "Sometimes we joke to each other that we went to Lehigh just to meet each other, because we shaped each other's futures very dramatically," Ikemba says.
And Ikemba says working as a residence assistant at Lehigh was "a major life-shaping experience that gave me leadership skills very early on in college."
Although she'd been interested in medicine from a very early age, she eventually realized it wasn't one-on-one clinical work she wanted to do, but rather public-health work serving large populations.
Armed with a master's degree in international public health from Harvard University and a doctorate degree in medicine from Tufts, she did postgraduate studies at the University of London and the London Hospital for Tropical Diseases before going to work for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and Life Technologies in Palo Alto, Calif.
Research wasn't satisfying her desire to help the masses directly, so she served for three years as a technical advisor to Global Fund projects in Nigeria under Columbia University's Access Project, helping that nation secure $480 million in public-health funding. "It was very technical, focused on proposal writing, project oversight, and implementation," she says.
Now, she has broadened her scope from Nigeria to the whole of Africa, leading advocacy, fund raising, and resource-mobilization efforts for the Global Fund.
"We advocated to political leaders, to African governments, to people in African nations, getting them to understand the projects, the way the Global Fund works, and also getting technical support around the projects available so we can get them implemented correctly."
There's nothing she'd rather be doing, but the task's enormity can feel overwhelming at times, she confesses.
"I'm completely consumed every day, and what keeps me going is the love of my husband and my 1-year-old," Ikemba says. "That makes it all better -- when I go home, they're there and they're supportive of everything I do."
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