Guinea worm disease was in the news recently, and so was a College of Medicine alumnus who studies it at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Kpandja Djawe, PhD, earned his masterís (2008) and doctorate (2011) in epidemiology, studying in the environmental health departmentís division of epidemiology and biostatistics. Djawe was quoted in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story about Guinea worm disease, and the New York Times also carried a story about the disease in its ScienceTimes section.
According to information from the World Health Organization (WHO), Guinea worm diseaseóformally dracunculiasis, from the Latin "afflication with little dragonsĒóis caused by a parasitic worm whose larvae are ingested through unfiltered drinking water. Once ingested, the larvae grow inside the body and migrate to the skin. The worm eventually emerges (from the feet in most cases), causing an intensely painful blister and an ulcer accompanied by fever, nausea and vomiting. The Carter Center, founded by former President Jimmy Carter, launched an effort in 1986 to eradicate the disease, found mainly in Africa, through education and providing access to safe water and filters.
Djawe grew up in Bassar, a town in the West African nation of Togo, and recalls seeing his sister and several cousins afflicted with Guinea worm disease. He answered questions via email a few weeks before his scheduled return to Africa in connection with his work at the CDC.
First things first: How do you pronounce your name?
PAN-ja Ja-WAY, with the K and the D silent. But Iím known at UC as "KP.Ē
How did you wind up in the United States, and then at UC?
My sister is married to Andy Long, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Bassar and is now an associate professor of math at Northern Kentucky University. In 2002, he and my sister sponsored me to come to continue my studies in the United States. I went NKU for four years and obtained my BS in biology in 2006. I joined the UC masterís program in 2006 and continued with the PhD.
What sparked your interest in epidemiology?
In my junior year at NKU, I started thinking about the next step after the BS degree. When I was brainstorming with my brother-in-law, he mentioned epidemiology and told me the work he did with the University of Michigan School of Public Health. From there, I started reading about epidemiology and quickly realized that it would be a fit for me and I could be involved in disease prevention across the globe. I became very interested and excited about becoming an epidemiologist.
How has your education at UC influenced your career?
At UC, my advisor and mentor guided me on the track. When I joined the department of environmental health, Dr. Ralph Buncher (PhD) was assigned to be my advisor. He told me about the opportunities I would have as an epidemiologist and mentioned the CDC and the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) program. A year later, I started working with Dr. Peter Walzer (MD) from the internal medicine department on projects involving antibody responses to PcP infection among HIV-infected patients. Before I graduated, I had six publications with him and had won several awards. He also told me about his experience as an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officer and encouraged me to apply. So what really influenced my career is a wonderful mentorship I had at UC.
Do you have any other memories from your time at UC that youíd like to share?
I will never forget the wonderful time I had interacting with professors and students in the Department of Environmental Health.
Can you elaborate on how your job as an epidemiologist intersects with the campaign to eradicate Guinea worm?
Iím at the CDC as an EIS officer, or "disease detective.Ē In that program you are often called to go investigate outbreaks, evaluate health programs or investigate the etiology of a health condition. A month ago, WHO requested CDC assistance in the evaluation of a Guinea worm eradication program in Niger. Although Iím in the division of HIV/AIDS prevention, CDC asked me if I could go assist WHO because I speak French. So in June, I will be heading to Niger.
Do you totally concentrate on Guinea worm at the CDC, or are there other issues you are working on?
My main focus is HIV/AIDS, but within the last nine months I have been involved in pertussis vaccine evaluation in Washington state, cholera surveillance evaluation in Haiti and Guinea worm in Niger. In summer, I will be heading in Malawi and Zimbabwe for HIV/AIDS projects. Iím also collaborating with the San Francisco Department of Public Health on a project to predict the survival time among HIV-infected persons after the acquisition of a specific opportunistic infection. The beauty about EIS is that you are prepared to apply epidemiologic methods in any disease setting. Sometimes you just have a few hours to learn the epidemiology of a disease you are about to investigate.