Working Half a World Away

November 15, 2004

Heather Heilman
Phone: (504) 865-5714

Kate Macintyre was a history major at Cambridge when conventional wisdom held that history majors had three career Options--law, journalism or business.

macintyreShe chose journalism and the chance it gave her to see the world, writing for The Economist and International Herald Tribune and other publications as she reported from Kenya, Sudan, Yemen and her native United Kingdom.

While on assignment, she became aware of the health needs of the semi-nomadic Samburu people who live in a remote area of northern Kenya with little in the way of basic infrastructure or basic health care.

She wanted to do more than just write about them and found herself deeply interested in issues of development and public health. But her advisers at Cambridge said they couldn't counsel her about "alternative" careers. No matter.

This month Macintyre will receive the American Public Health Association International Health Section Mid-Career Professional Award, in recognition of her passionate dedication to the alternative career path that has led her to improve health care in developing nations. She is now an associate professor of international health and development at Tulane's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

It began in 1986 when, two years out of college and already an established international correspondent, she helped found SAIDIA (which means "help" in KiSwahili), a nonprofit primary health-care organization in Kenya. After gaining Hands-on experience in designing, implementing and managing programs, she enrolled in the public health school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, studying a mix of policy and management as applied to health care in developing regions.

She earned her master of science and doctorate in public health before joining the Tulane faculty in 1997. She has focused on developing prevention and control programs for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. She evaluates such programs and trains others to do the same. For example, she recently worked on an evaluation of bed-net use in Eritrea.

The government is distributing free insecticide-treated bed-nets as protection against the mosquito bites that spread malaria. Officials wanted to know if the effort was successful-- were people using the bednets and had the nets slowed the spread of malaria?

Results show that Eritrea is one of the places that has been successful in reducing malaria. Her work takes her all over the world. Recent projects include a study of adolescent sexual behavior in South Africa and tuberculosis management in northern Kenya, where many people mistakenly believe TB is sexually transmitted because of its association with HIV/AIDS.

She serves as chair of the board of directors of SAIDIA and is intimately involved in many of its projects. For the last five years, she has taken Tulane public health students to Cuba to study that nation's health system, and last year helped guide a course in Kenya to look at healthcare and development programs in the era of HIV and AIDS.

"I'm a social scientist," said Macintyre. "What I look at is human behavior within a social and political context, anything that is healthseeking behavior. I took what I learned about HIV regarding why some people respond to messages and some don't, and applied it to malaria. Now I'm increasingly getting interested in TB, which is a huge problem."

About two-thirds of the world's population is infected with latent tuberculosis. Its active form is curable if treated in a timely manner, but there are stigmas old and new associated with the disease that often inhibit people from seeking treatment. Macintyre's work has plenty of challenges, many of them exacerbated by the impossibility of being in more than one place at a time.

Doing the work well requires long stretches in the field while still keeping up with her obligations to students, colleagues and family at home. Yet, despite the difficulties, she thinks her work is just about ideal for her. "I love it, I do, I really love my work."

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