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Grace Umutesi Combats Yellow Fever in the Congo

Alumni Umutesi Grace

In the spring of 2015, Grace Umutesi graduated from OC with a degree in biology and went to graduate school at Vanderbilt University. There, she studied at Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine and obtained her master’s in global health. She also began her work as an active participant in global health.

Since beginning graduate school, Umutesi has had the opportunity to travel to countries like Guinea, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda serving as a public health practitioner and working on various projects.

For two years, Umutesi prepared a project for a trip to Kenya where she worked with a group from the Department of Anesthesiology at Vanderbilt and Kijabe Hospital to help evaluate the impact of the Kenya registered nurse anesthetists (KRNA) training program in Western Kenya.

“My job was to assess the anesthesia and surgical capacity in nine rural hospitals in Western Kenya and spent three months traveling to different hospitals every few days,” said Umutesi.

Another project Umutesi worked on was the Yellow Fever Project. Yellow Fever is a viral hemorrhagic infection that is transmitted through mosquito bites and can cause fever, headaches, jaundice, muscle pain, nausea and fatigue. In 2016, Umutesi was in Guinea when Yellow Fever broke out in the province of Kinshasa located in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Grace Umutesi
Grace Umutesi is on a mission to provide health care to people with limited access. #OCishome to extraordinary callings.

“The Yellow Fever outbreak got out of control, so WHO, CDC, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and other partners in DRC, began organizing a mass vaccination campaign to contain the outbreak in Kinshasa,” said Umutesi. “The idea was to contain the outbreak in Kinshasa to prevent the spread to Central, East and parts of West Africa.”

A comprehensive team was assembled with people from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the government of Congo. Many members of the team were physicians, immunologists and public health practitioners who were mostly bilingual translators and had an understanding of the cultural context.

“They asked for people to sign up,” said Umutesi. “So, I signed up and before I knew it, I found myself on a plane.”

The team focused on supporting the government and organizing the mass vaccination campaign.

“It’s not an easy task to plan a campaign in one week to vaccinate 12 million people,” Umutesi said. Umutesi and her team traveled in and out of Kinshasa working with the ministry of health there, visiting the sites to see what supplies hospitals and house centers needed to prevent Yellow Fever from spreading. During the mass vaccination campaign, the team worked with multiple parties to make access to vaccines as easy as possible without forcing people to travel far to get vaccinated.

However, the global vaccination stock was low and the outbreak response team had to improvise.

“What we had to decide was whether we give a few people the full dose for a lifetime or if we gave everyone a fraction of the dose and come back next year and vaccinate everyone again,” Umutesi said. “We could not afford anyone not being vaccinated, so we decided that we would give everyone a fraction of the vaccination and then do another round once the manufacturer had produced more vaccines.”

A few studies done before had proven that a fraction of those with the vaccines would have the same effect as those with a whole dose in the following years. Umutesi and her team decided to embed a study into the campaign to assess the effectiveness of those with a fraction of the vaccine.

“The study was proven to be effective both six months after the vaccine was given to the people and nine months afterwards,” said Umutesi. “So the next study we’re looking at is its effects after 12 months, and then 24 months after vaccination.”

Since the mass campaign, Umutesi has moved on to other campaigns while continuing to monitor the Yellow Fever Project. Preliminary findings from the team’s research paper on Yellow Fever was published New England Journal of Medicine last spring.

Today, Umutesi is working with Partners in Health, a Harvard-affiliated organization. Between disease surveillance, education and more, she does a lot of research work to translate research findings into program actions to improve patients' outcome.

“Just bridging work that’s been done in other places and providing the tools and resources to low-resource areas is really where my passion is--to serve the people who need it the most.”