Immaculate (Emmy) Mbarusha was a nurse and researcher on the front line of HIV in Uganda when she realized that another health threat was undermining the nation’s young and productive segment of the population: cancer. In 2008, she shifted her focus to Uganda’s abysmal cancer survival rates and joined a team of cancer investigators. Over the course of three years Mbarusha played a key role as a research nurse on an ambitious research project that would aim to uncover why Uganda has among the highest rates of Kaposi sarcoma in the world.
The project—an observational study of primary human herpesvirus 8 infection in Ugandan children—required persistence and patience. "We followed infants from birth until 3 years of age to define the timing and route of infection of the Kaposi sarcoma virus," Mbarusha said. In the course of conducting the study, Mbarusha had coordinated the screening of more than 583 pregnant recruits, the enrollment of 150 participants and more than 1,612 home visits. The data is still under analysis. "We hope the research helps us understand whether the age at the time of infection affects the ability of the immune system to control infection," she said.
The human herpesvirus 8 study was conducted by the UCI/Hutchinson Center Cancer Alliance, a collaboration between Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Wash., USA, and the Uganda Cancer Institute in Kampala, Uganda. The experience was transformational for Mbarusha; she went on to lead two additional research studies focusing on HIV-associated cancers in Uganda.
"I believe in the power of disease prevention, and I can contribute to this through research," Mbarusha said. "However, the key is quality research, which is still a challenge in Uganda. We don’t have enough knowledge or information and we need to increase community participation."
In August 2010, the pursuit to hone these skills took Mbarusha far from her home, family and two young children in Kampala to the U.S. for the first time. In Seattle, she participated in a six-week specialized training program sponsored by the Hutchinson Center, which provided logistical support, and was funded by the UK-based HIV Research Trust. The curriculum also included instruction through the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health on topics such as the principles of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV research.
Mbarusha’s training at the Hutchinson Center builds on her extensive background in health education and community-based development. She has more than seven years of specialized research experience in social work and a variety of HIV prevention programs, including community mobilization, health education and HIV counseling and testing.
"I, alongside my colleagues, want to see a disease-free community," Mbarusha said as she prepared to return to Uganda from Seattle in late August 2011. "With the experience I’ve gained here to implement quality research, I believe that, step by step, we can get there."
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For more information, photos and video of Immaculate Mbarusha or other Ugandan trainees, please contact:
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