Newly elected National Academy of Medicine member M. Kariuki Njenga recently talked about his election to the National Academy of Medicine and his efforts to address human-animal diseases.
Q: What does being elected to the National Academy of Medicine mean to you professionally?
Dr. Njenga: This is the highest honor of my professional career, and the fact that eminent scholars elected me in recognition of our work addressing emerging and endemic zoonotic diseases is particularly gratifying.
Q: What does the honor mean personally? What was the first thought that came to mind when you learned of your election?
Dr. Njenga: As a son of a peasant farmer from rural Kenya, I remember the day that my father had to choose between buying himself much-needed clothing and paying my school tuition. I wish he and my mother were around to celebrate this honor with me.
Growing up, my dream was to come to the United States and become a tenured professor directing a well-funded laboratory. I never dreamed of being elected to the U.S. National Academy of Medicine. I cannot think of a better job in the world than having the support of a major U.S. university and the U.S. government to work in my home country of Kenya to reduce the burden of infectious diseases. Therefore, to have this honor bestowed upon me is unbelievable.
Q: Describe the “One Health” concept and how it applies to WSU’s commitment to public health.
Dr. Njenga: One health is addressing the public health threats of international concerns, including emerging and endemic zoonotic diseases, through an integrated approach by human, animal, and environmental experts. This approach is the core of the WSU Global Health Program. It is reflected by growing collaborations with the CDC, human and animal health sectors in regional programs, and in the deliberate design of research projects focused on disease burden and interventions that emphasis human and animal linkages.
Q: Tell us about the WSU Global Health Program in Kenya. What specific achievements stand out to you?
Dr. Njenga: The WSU Global Health Program in Kenya began with a research project funded by Paul G. Allen to investigate the role of livestock in human welfare and health among rural small-scale livestock farmers in western Kenya. Today, the program has grown into perhaps the largest WSU research program outside of Washington.
We work closely with the CDC, Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), Kenya Ministry of Health, and the Kenya Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries to undertake applied research and build in-country capacity that improves prevention and control of zoonotic diseases. A project that is having the greatest impact is establishment of the Kenya Livestock and Wildlife Surveillance Systems (KLWSS), a mobile phone-based disease surveillance and reporting system that is providing domestic animal and wildlife disease information in real-time before these diseases can spill over to humans.
We are also working closely with the government of Kenya to provide research data that support the rabies elimination program. We are leading the country in investigating the threat of emerging infectious diseases including Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and the Zika virus.
Q: Public health, essentially by definition, requires partnerships. Which partnerships in Kenya have been most important in meeting your and WSU’s goals?
Dr. Njenga: Our partnerships with Kenyan government agencies, including the Kenya Medical Research Institute, Kenya Ministry of Health, Kenya Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries, and Kenya Wildlife Services, are perhaps the most important. Our collaboration with the CDC office in Kenya is invaluable.
Q: While most of your work is concentrated in Kenya, you also play a leading role with WSU efforts throughout east Africa. Can you give one example of a regional approach?
Dr. Njenga: I have worked with regional groups, including the World Health Organization’s Africa Regional, Food, and Agriculture office, to institutionalize the One Health approach in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Uganda,Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Somalia.
Q: The Allen School has just celebrated the 10th anniversary of its founding. Looking forward, what most excites you about the next 10 years?
Dr. Njenga: First, I probably would not have received this prestigious recognition if I had not joined WSU and the Allen School. The school’s leadership has been most visionary in broadening the scope of animal research to integrate human welfare and health.
Looking forward, I am excited about the new WSU medical school in Spokane that will further broaden our ideas through collaborations between basic scientists, veterinarians, and physicians. The plans by Allen School director Tom Kawula to strengthen collaboration between scientists in Pullman and global health programs outside the United States will also be beneficial.
Q: What would you tell a prospective veterinary student who is interested in studying global health?
Dr. Njenga: I do not know of a veterinary school in the U.S. that offers better exposure and opportunities for a career in global health than WSU.