Amara Ezeamama always had assumed she would go to medical school.
Her “crisis of confidence” about that direction arose after a trip to Louisiana to present her undergraduate research at an Association of Minority Health Profession Schools symposium. There, Ezeamama got the chance to meet Dr. David Satcher, the U.S. surgeon general under then-President Bill Clinton. She found herself inspired by Satcher’s long and distinguished career in public health, a field she had been unaware of up until that point.
“At that meeting, I realized there was another world of health-related work beyond biomedicine and clinical practice,” Ezeamama said. “I was fascinated by research, but studying neurotransmitters in mice had only made me realize how much I enjoyed some level of human interaction. I wanted to spend my time doing something that came to me more naturally and that had more direct impact on human health.”
Now an assistant professor of epidemiology in the College of Public Health, Ezeamama engages in a field of research considered the cornerstone of public health-examining the patterns, causes and effects of health and disease conditions.
Ezeamama studies global infectious diseases, such as HIV, malaria and parasitic worms, with a particular interest in understanding and describing syndemics, which are the condition of multiple, synchronous infections in often socially and economically disadvantaged settings.
Her findings are used to plan and evaluate strategies to prevent illness and manage treatment.
“All things considered, the goals that lured me toward medicine are being realized much more than I thought possible in epidemiology,” Ezeamama said. “I am incredibly fortunate to wake up each day knowing that what I am thinking about matters to millions of people around the world.”
In a recent study, Ezeamama took a closer look at HIV and malaria co-infection in a group of 2,386 pregnant, HIV-positive Tanzanian women and their infants from pregnancy to six weeks post-delivery. Her aim was to tease out a connection between maternal diagnosis of malaria in pregnancy and child HIV infection.
As expected, Ezeamama found that HIV-positive mothers with malaria were more likely to transmit HIV to their children within six weeks of birth. This risk was particularly strong for women with two or more malarial episodes during pregnancy. The findings, which were published in the journal HIV Medicine in May, suggest that malaria prevention and treatment may enhance the effectiveness of programs aimed at preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
For her next project, Ezeamama has her sights set on an “awesome set of studies” that she hopes will answer some more of her pressing questions about HIV infection in children. The studies will use data provided from funding from the UGA Research Foundation and the College of Public Health.
The data was collected over a four-month period from 150 mother-child pairs in Uganda with HIV infection or exposure. The children, who are age 6 or older, will provide Ezeamama and her team with a unique opportunity to examine the long-term status of children who were exposed or infected with HIV in the weeks after birth.
“In the past, a child with HIV died quickly. Today, transitions in the HIV/AIDS epidemic are such that we are now beginning to see HIV-infected children entering the school system, ” she said. “But are these children functional? Are they able to learn as well and have a quality of life similar to children born to women without HIV?”
For epidemiologists like Ezeamama, this new demographic of children living with HIV presents a lot of unknowns to study.
“While more remains to be done, in many ways, we are beginning to encounter challenges borne out of success,” she said.