Experiencing CDC's Impact in Kenya

During the week of February 13, 2012, I had the privilege of traveling in Kenya with CDC leaders including Dr. Kevin DeCock – Director of the CDC Center for Global Health (CGH), Dr. Deborah Birx – Director of the CGH Division of Global HIV/AIDS, Sandra Thurman – Senior Adviser for Strategy and Development in the CGH Division of Global HIV/AIDS, Jessica Daly – Acting Director of Public Private Partnerships for the US Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator (PEPFAR), and a delegation of CDC officials from Kenya led by Dr. Nancy Knight –  Director CGH Division of Global HIV/AIDS in Kenya.

This trip was organized to provide a firsthand understanding of the impact of a public-private partnership between my company, BD (Becton, Dickinson and Co.) and PEPFAR, implemented through the CDC, focused on strengthening blood sampling practices, and to personally experience the CDC’s vital impact in disease surveillance and health system strengthening.  On the first day our delegation visited the National TB and National HIV Reference Laboratories in Nairobi, and we participated in the official launch of the Safe Blood Handling Center of Excellence at the Kenyan Medical Teaching College (KMTC).  This was an elaborate event that began with Kenyan medical students demonstrating their skills in safe blood sampling and handling, followed by a ceremony with speeches by the Kenyan Minister for Medical Services and other dignitaries.

Gary Cohen - Kenya

Following this event, I joined a private meeting attended by the CDC, UNICEF, the Kenyan Bureau of Statistics and other collaborative partners for an update on the Together for Girls national survey on violence against children in Kenya.  Together for Girls is a partnership with five UN agencies, two sections of the US Department of State, the CDC, the CDC Foundation and other partners focused on ending sexual violence against children, particularly focused on girls.

Continuing our activities on the first day, we toured through the urban shantytown slum of Kibera in Nairobi and visited the Tabitha Clinic, where we met with Barry Fields, PhD, Director – Diagnostics & Laboratory Systems, Division of Global Disease Detection for the CDC in Kenya.  We learned how the Tabitha Clinic serves the dual purpose of providing quality health care for people living in extreme poverty, while also enabling frontline disease detection by the US government in order to protect both Kenyans and US citizens from dangerous disease outbreaks.  Completing an intensive first day, we had a working dinner with partners in the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon initiative, which is focused on addressing cervical and breast cancer in developing countries.  PEPFAR and BD are founding partners in this initiative.

Very early the following morning, we ‘hit the road’ and drove many hours southwest to visit Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital in Nakuru, an outstanding hospital that was one of the first trial sites for improving blood sampling and handling practices.  Afterwards we traveled several hours further (hampered by roads under construction) to Kericho to visit the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)/Walter Reed Project (WRP) Clinical Research Center and Labs, which was originally established under the leadership of Dr. Birx in the 1990s. 

Following a dinner with the delegation and KEMRI/WRP leadership at the James Finley Guest House, a picturesque series of cottages nestled in a tea plantation, and a night’s sleep, the delegation headed out early the next morning to Kisumu.  We joined officials of the Clinical Research Center in Kisumu, another site that provides vital disease detection and laboratory services in Kenya’s third largest city, and then conducted a site visit at Nyanza Provincial General Hospital, a highly impressive health facility serving the population of Kisumu.  Health statistics from Kisumu indicate much higher rates of HIV prevalence, malaria and child mortality compared with the general population in Kenya, and these CDC- and PEPFAR-enabled facilities provide vital services to the local population.

It was a privilege to travel with such an impressive delegation and to personally witness the enormously positive impact that CDC and PEPFAR have.  Although I’ve traveled over 20 times to sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade, this was the most in-depth opportunity I’ve had to understand the frontline global health impact of CDC.  CDC and PEFPAR are staffed by the most professional, highest integrity people I’ve ever known and worked with.  This is at every level of these agencies.  They are deeply focused on their mission of saving lives and protecting the American public from global disease threats.  Their contributions and achievements are monumental, and so deeply appreciated in the countries they serve, yet CDC’s professionals are inherently humble in their approach.  I’ve never seen someone from CDC claim credit for their incredible work.  Their contributions are matched only by their human qualities.  As an American, I am extremely proud to know that CDC and PEPFAR represent our country so effectively throughout the world.

It was particularly impressive how Dr. DeCock and Dr. Birx engaged with the clinicians, laboratorians and other staff at every site we visited.  They inspired me and all who interacted with them.  Both of these CDC leaders had previously served in key leadership roles in Kenya, Dr. DeCock as Director of CDC Kenya, and Dr. Birx with the Department of Defense.  Their devotion to the well-being and health of Kenya’s citizens and their tremendous value as public servants for the US were evident throughout the trip.

Lastly, this trip was an excellent opportunity to understand the positive impacts of public-private partnerships (PPPs).  BD is engaged in five PPPs with PEPFAR, four of which are implemented through CDC.  All of these partnerships have been highly successful in combining the know-how and capabilities of the private sector with the reach, expertise and in-country presence of CDC.  The beneficial impact of the Safe Blood Collection and Handling partnership – led by Dr. Kamani of CDC and Jessica Daly and Renuka Gadde of BD – that was the impetus for this trip will leave a lasting legacy for many decades by improving diagnostic testing accuracy and protecting Kenya’s vital health workforce from injuries that can spread HIV and other bloodborne pathogens.

Special thanks are due to Jessica Daly, Dr. Knight and Renuka Gadde of BD for organizing this truly extraordinary trip.



Gary Cohen