EHI IGUMBOR: Associate Professor before 29 years

Posted by Olaniyi Abodedele on Saturday, December 14, 2013 Under: Our Headline Articles
Prof. Ehimario Uche Igumbor is an Academician and Epidemiologist employed in the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Pretoria, South Africa. Through dint of hard-work and academic excellence, Dr. Igumbor rose rapidly through the ranks of Junior Lecturer, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor of Epidemiology in a university academic career spanning almost 10 years. He holds a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree from the University of Zimbabwe; a Masters degree in Public Health (MPH) specializing in Epidemiology and Biostatistics; and a doctorate degree (PhD) from the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.

Besides these academic attainments, Ehimario Igumbor parades several accolades and certificates which bear testimony to his outstanding scholarship. He is a recipient of several awards and in several prestigious competitive contests – in Nigeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa. He was only 12 years old when he was awarded a National Merit Certificate by the Nigerian National Mathematical Centre, Abuja.

While undertaking his BSc (Hons) degree at the University of Zimbabwe Medical School, he received the “Dean's Award” and “University Book Prize” in successive years and graduated with awards of “Best Overall Academic Performance” and “Best Honours Research Student”. Further on, he passed his Masters Degree course work with distinction earning a Masters in Public Health degree when he was only 21 years old.

Before his 30thbirthday, he was appointed to the position of Associate Professor of Public Health by two Universities in South Africa but decided to take up a position with CDC while holding the title of Extraordinary Associate Professor of Public Health with his alma mater – the University of the Western Cape. In recognition of his “outstanding achievements as a healthcare educator”, Ehimario is listed in the 2014 (31st edition) of the prestigious “Marquis Who’s Who in the World” and he has maintained a profile listing in “Who’s Who in South Africa” since 2011. He was conferred Honorary Membership by the Golden Key International Honour Society and is A rated researcher by the South African National Research Foundation. A trailblazer, self-starter and an epitome of distinguished scholarship, Ehimario Igumbor has proven his mettle as a burgeoning academic giant in the African higher education landscape.

The Nigerian Voice Newspaper caught up with him in an exclusive interview.

Professor Ehi, congratulations on wining the Nigerian Community Excellence award for Academic Excellence in South Africa, what are your thoughts on the awards and the event generally?
Thank you. I revel most sincerely at winning the Community Award and like I shared at the ceremony, it is a very special one for me. I say this because although one receives accolades and praise for ones’ work, being recognized by “your own”, is an absolute blessing. Even scripture warns of “prophets NOT being recognized in their home”! Here I am, blessed with the fortune of such recognition. I am truly grateful about it.

I felt the more elated by the gesture of recognizing academic excellence. All too often, we look to acknowledging individuals in commerce and industry, otherwise those with political or at least more public stature – sportsmen, musicians etc… and not always a lowly university teacher (laughs). I always thought it was remiss to ignore such a germane sector and an endeavor where many Nigerians have distinguished themselves in the diaspora in general, and specifically in South Africa. So the fact that “academic excellence” was deemed an important category for the community award is commendable. The award does well to launch academia as another viable lens to view the life and works of Nigerians living in South Africa.

I mean, I was thrilled to read about the laudable achievements of the other nominees. It adds to many similar attainments I hear about our country men and women. Speak of “Naija no dey carry last” (laughs).

Regarding the award ceremony, I thought it was a resounding success. Oscar-styled yet not losing its Nigerian theme: the red carpet entrance, photography, entertaining musical performances, regaling banquet of Nigerian cuisine and then wonderful company of Nigerians - all ingredients for a splendid evening. We had nothing short of a 5-star celebration and I have no doubt that everyone who attended enjoyed themselves. You have created really high standards for future events and I look forward to next year’s celebration.

Your journey to excellence has been an illustrious career and a good example of the Nigerian success story against all odds, what were the challenges you had to overcome to reach the height of your career?

That’s a very kind remark, thank you. I truly must say though that I consider myself to have been very fortunate.I had a promising upbringing – I cannot say that my parents were wealthy but it would be untrue to describe an upbringing in want. We were most wealthy when it came to education and the opportunities for learning. What I suppose I did well was to leverage the asset of this background to attain academic heights. It did mean trade-offs: not playing away opportunities and looking for lessons and morals from every set-back. And believe me, there have been a few set-backs. Keeping focus on what I wanted for my career and applying myself as best as I could was what I did.  For example, I was still 21 years old when I completed my Masters degree. I was admitted but could not secure a full doctoral bursary for a PhD programme at the University College London (UK). It was my choice of institution for my PhD as they had amazing faculty working in an area of research I was interested in. The reality was that I (and my family) could not have afforded such cost. I thus elected to seek employment locally in South Africa and indeed undertake my PhD here too. In hindsight, that was the wisest decision I took as it allowed me consolidate in a research area of more relevance to our African context and at the same time gain access to University Faculty appointment. That being said, employment did not happen at first application. But in time, it did! The gist for me is this: maintain your focus and be steadfast – things will come together in time.

As a professor of epidemiology is Africa wining the fight against HIV/AIDS?

We have made significant strides in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In fact, there is surmounting evidence that increasingly HIV/AIDS now falls in the realm of a chronic manageable disease. There is work from Malawi and South Africa showing that life expectancy, (by that, I mean the average age an individual is expected to live), of adults who are infected with HIV is approximating those of those not infected. This is progress in that we can now say being infected by the virus does not equate to death. But in the same breathe, in places where this is becoming the case, we must then deal with a chronic lifelong disease that further challenges public health.

So we talk of major successes, at least in South Africa, for example in the areas of impressive reduction in the transmission of the virus from mother to baby, improved health-related quality of life of HIV infected individuals on anti-retroviral drugs and anoverall reduction in HIV deaths. The UNAIDS have reported that there were more than 700 000 fewer new HIV infections globally in 2011 than in 2001 and that Africa has cut AIDS-related deaths by one third in the past six years. What a difference a decade makes.

But this overall performance masks differences in the various sub-population groups throughout our countries. Poor underserved populations still exist where rates are markedly higher than the average. More so, the number of new infections continues to be high and with respect to risk behaviors, we seem to be hearing about reductions in the reported use of condoms. So you see, there is no room for complacence. HIV/AIDS remains quite a formidable health challenges.

On a very positive note though, we know much more about the epidemic than we ever did and there has been unprecedented high-level rally of support towards responding to HIV. We need to sustain this and in fact get more to make the currently mooted AIDS free generation a reality.

There are two on-going researches on HIV cure in both UCT and KZN University.  Is cure for HIV on the horizon?

I wish I could be more prophetic about this one. You can imagine that I would wish a cure already! But let me say colleagues are researching and gaining new perspectives on a variety of interventions both in South African institutions and internationally. There’s the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI) which is doing stellar work coordinating research, development and testing of HIV vaccines in South Africa in order to produce affordable, effective and locally relevant HIV vaccines. In similar vein, CAPRISA enjoys international reputation for leading current understanding of HIV pathogenesis, prevention and epidemiology. Their microbicide trials are noteworthy.

Our reality though is that there is currently no cure and perhaps we should, at least for now, desist from speculating on the timing for a “magic bullet”. We should rather dwell on how we can apply the cocktail of interventions we currently have and know about, in responding to the epidemic. Combination prevention efforts to limit any further spread of the epidemic in the first instance and improved access to available treatment for eligible infected patients should be our priority. With that should be health systems strengthening and intervention addressing the social determinants of people’s health. These, (social determinants), are the true drivers of the epidemic in our continent.

Healthcare is a big challenge to most African countries, giving your experience in the field of public health, what policies and programs would you advise countries like Nigeria and SA to put in place?

(Smiles) Again, no single set of policies or programs can serve as panacea to the healthcare challenges facing our continent. 

I would make a distinction between healthcare and health and respond to the former. Like other aspects of the polity of Africa, we need to make smart investments based on sound science, and develop shared responsibility for our challenges that is inclusive of government but importantly civil society, the private sector and community/patient groups. I find that there is too much “business as usual” and little recourse to careful reflection on what worked and what did not and why? But most of all, we need to invest in building systems that truly deliver.

You are already Extraordinary Associate Professor and have worked with top international agencies, what is the next big move for Professor Igumbor?

In short, I would like to continue in my support of initiatives, programs and strategies that tackle Africa’s most formidable and intransigent health problems especially in respect of strengthening health systems through training and capacity building. I have a leaning to impact on Public Health in Nigeria and would explore ways to do so. 

There are thousands of Nigerian Diaspora professionals in SA, what are you and your colleagues in different fields doing to support development of our home country and Diaspora Nigerians in SA?

This is an area I feel very passionate about. It is also an issue that requires very careful analysis. Let me explain: a few weeks ago, the World Bank released a report showing that in 2012 alone, Nigeria received US$20 billion in remittances. That is money transfers from Nigerian workers employed outside the country to friends or relatives at home. We hold the dubious title of being among the top 10 recipient countries when it comes to such remittances. We are often compared to countries in the Asian bloc, such as India and China which are known to also command sizeable amounts. So there’s some contribution already – almost by default.

But that’s only part of the story. There are some of us who have taken to one pet project or the other. As I am in the business of education and training, I have been involved in mentoring post-graduate Masters and Doctoral students in Nigeria, working with them in developing Public Health research skills. Thanks to our distance learning platform at the University of the Western Cape, a number of them have successfully completed their degrees while retaining their jobs in Nigeria. I feel particularly proud of this as they continue to be of service to Public Health at home and by extension, have allowed me, through their works, to contribute to investigating Public Health research questions at home. I have a keen interest in modeling this approach and have been exploring running short training courses in conjunction with Universities in Nigeria. This is my trade and an area I would like to make some impact at home. I also see well-meaning Nigerians here and in my travels who, at least in their speaking, want to do similar things.

It is unlikely that we cannot do more than we currently do – but even such modest contributions often need structural and systemic support. Absence of such support restrains our efforts and is a huge lacuna separating what can be from what is. The irony is that, like I pointed out earlier, we are speaking about an industry that’s worth at least US$20 billion annually. We need conduits for these means of support which are in fact, huge investment potentials.

Our readers would like to know Prof. Igumbor most cherished moment?

You would not believe that this is a question I have not given any thought to previously. As such, please forgive what must be a less than direct response. You seem to suggest a single “most cherished moment”; I fear that I have couple of cherished instances qualifying as some of my most cherished. With respect to my career, I easily recollect my appointment to the position of Associate Professor (just before my 29th birthday); earning my Masters degree (at 21 years); being invited to serve as an External Expert to the Health Portfolio Committee of the National Parliament of South Africa and receiving rave reviews on my published research even from the Minister of Health. O yes, when research questions I posited and investigated had translational value in policy and practice has sure made me feel among the stars. The same is true of situations where my students demonstrate learning following my interaction with them. 

But there are other non-career moments I have cherished and long to relive. For example, when my team (Manchester United) won the league last season (laughs);  but also less grandiose, but yet also truly special, time spent with my siblings, parents and relatives in my hometown, Agbor, Delta State, having a local meal and discussing. Priceless! (Laughs)

Does Prof. Igumbor have a role model?

O yes I have several role models and in different aspects of my life. My humanity and spirituality have been shaped by the trio of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and St. Augustine. Professionally, I have enjoyed mentorship from senior colleagues in my unit in Cape Town – Emeritus Professor David Sanders and Professor Thandi Puoane stand out for me. But many others too – worthy of mention are Professors Larry Obi and Abolade Awotedu who I look up to with great professional admiration.

Fundamentally, my world view has been shaped by my parents –my dad Mr. Sam Igumbor, and mum, Professor Eunice Igumbor, have been incredible role models to me.

What is your message to your fellow Nigerians in SA?

I wish compatriots in South Africa would, as our anthem enjoins, rise to Nigeria’s call. I wish that we would recognize that we are Nigeria’s ambassadors through our everyday dealings. This way, immaterial of our current place in society, we maintain a moral focus and strive for our dreams. It truly is possible.

Tell us your impressions about the Nigerian Voice newspaper?

Admiration is all I feel about your newspaper and media platform. To have grown so quickly in one year and importantly filling the erstwhile void of a positive community newspaper for Nigerians in South Africa is enviable.

Nigerian Voice makes for an absolutely refreshing read – where lots of media fixate on relaying “bad news”, narratives of doom and gloom, Nigerian Voice is about celebrating that which is good. It is a sweet voice of Nigeria, rather than the wails and growling which characterize many others. No doubt, Nigerian Voice has a bright future and is on the path to becoming a publication of great reckoning.

In approbating your good work, I will like to also request that you continue with this national project of image building for our dear country. After all, you are her voice!

The Nigerian Voice Newspaper celebrates this great son of Nigeria and Africa who is making a difference in South Africa and around the world.

In : Our Headline Articles 

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