CDC-Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Tabu Collins, a Medical Epidemiologist for the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation (MOPHS). Tabu told me about his journey to becoming an epidemiologist and the public health challenges and successes in Kenya. Every day he sees the power of vaccines, not only to save but also to transform lives, giving children in Kenya an opportunity to grow up healthy, go to school, and live long productive lives.
Tabu grew up on the border of Nyanza and Western provinces. He can still recall the waves of measles, cholera, and typhoid that would strike his village. “It was something we learned to live with,” he told me. Tabu speaks of how as a child he and his friends always had coughs and many ended up in the hospital, rehabilitation centers, or worse. “Looking back, I know it could have been avoided.”
After following in his oldest brother’s footsteps and becoming a medical officer, Tabu worked in Kisumu, a city in an area with one of the highest disease burdens in Kenya. He saw firsthand the limitations of curative medicine, particularly when his patients were late to seek his care. His interest in public health began to grow as a means to prevent the diseases and conditions he spent his career treating. Vaccination came naturally as his next pursuit. “It is key and one of the most cost effective ways to thwarting preventable diseases. It is an area I knew I could make an impact and add value in my community and beyond.”
Tabu is proud to be one of 64 Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Program (FELTP) alumni. “The program allowed me hands on experience – not emphasized in most post-graduate training programs in Kenya – to develop and hone my skills.” FELTP in Kenya is a partnership between MOPHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and modeled on CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service. During the two year, full-time training and service program, he participated in outbreak investigations for pandemic influenza H1N1, cholera, and typhoid. “It was thrilling to have our team’s findings used to make decisions. Even as a resident, I could do something that would influence policy. I was hooked.”
Once a FELTP, always a FELTP one might say. From outbreak investigations to gap assessments, Tabu continues to work side-by-side with CDC. “I still have mentors at CDC. I get back to them whenever I need to consult on difficult issues,” he said. His job entails a great deal of dialogue and collaboration with the districts to respond to their needs, requiring him to provide a solution to their problems.
Part of his work includes helping Kenya introduce new vaccines so they are available and free to all children. Top on his agenda is the introduction of the rotavirus vaccine, which will significantly reduce severe diarrhea in children under the age of five. In Kenya, diarrhea remains one of the leading causes of preventable mortality in children under age five. “There’s also a lot of excitement about the malaria vaccine, even though field trials are still ongoing.” Much of the research and development of today’s new vaccines, including rotavirus, malaria, and tuberculosis, have been done locally, which builds awareness in the community and creates more support, at all levels, for the introduction of the vaccine. “People have seen firsthand, or heard, of the vaccines effectiveness.”
In the grand scheme of things, Tabu sees headway being made for preventable diseases in Kenya. “More children are reaching their fifth birthday and more adults are reaching old age. Now, we grapple with new and reemerging diseases and see fewer cases of vaccine preventable diseases. However, we can be a victim of our own successes. People no longer see these diseases so they don’t think that vaccinating is important. But my childhood memories don’t lie, that unassuming shot is a lifesaving vaccine.”