Mwele Malecela on Tanzania, IANPHI-Africa, and being a woman leader in Public Health

October 15, 2014

Dr. Mwele Malecela serves as Director General of Tanzania's National Institute for Medical Research, and IANPHI Vice President.Mwele Malecela

IANPHI: Having worked at the National Institute for Medical Research for nearly 25 years, you have had a remarkable career in addressing public health challenges in Tanzania. How did you first become interested in public health and who were some of your key role models or mentors?

MM: A lot of inspiration has come from my late mother Ezerina Malecela who was my role model and mentor who really shaped my career by telling me that the sky was not the limit. I started off being very interested and excited about medical research, and then I realized the importance of getting research into action and the importance of a public health approach. As a woman it was very important for me to have the support of other woman scientists, and I will always be indebted to my colleagues and friends Dr. Tshidi Moeti, Dr. Julie Makani, Dr. Lindi Makubalo, Dr. Uche Amazigo, and Dr. Martha Lemnge, who are researchers and public health specialists in different areas and have illustrious careers, just to name a few. 

IANPHI: What can nations and NPHIs do to encourage girls and women to become interested in public health and science and to become leaders in those disciplines? 

MM: Mentorship is the key. The visual impact of seeing and knowing that it is possible for women to excel in science and public health is a great motivator for girls and young women. Mentorship programs directed at young women leaders are crucial. I have also pushed for the increase in the number of women scientists at NIMR and I am proud to say that the ratio of men to women is 3:1 compared to no women when the institute started in 1980. It would be remiss for me not to recognize the role of my predecessors as well. We do, however, need to see women in directorship positions and senior management.

IANPHI: What have you done to mentor younger women in your work? 

MM: I have mentored several women scientists at my institution and outside it and am proud to see them grow as leaders in their field. This summer I had a high school intern shadow me for a day. Although she had always been interested in public health, she felt that the experience of shadowing gave her a strong motivation to pursue this field.  I feel that as women who have excelled in careers in science, we have a responsibility to find time to inspire young girls through school visits, science fairs, and shadowing. 

IANPHI:  In your time at NIMR, much has changed and improved in Tanzanian public health. What have you observed as the greatest public health accomplishment in Tanzania since you began working there? On the flipside, what do you see as the greatest public health challenge yet to be addressed? 

MM: I feel that the country’s efforts to address communicable diseases have been remarkable and have had great impact, especially with regard to TB, HIV, and malaria, and recently some neglected tropical diseases. Great progress has been made in the area of childhood immunization, which combined with other factors has contributed to decreased childhood mortality. 

The greatest public health challenge yet to be adequately addressed is non-communicable diseases. The levels of NCDs in Tanzania are exceedingly high and we are seeing an increase in risk factors in both the urban and rural areas. While smoking is being banned in several places in many countries, Tanzania continues to struggle as glamorous advertisements continue to plague our streets and entice the youth to smoke. For most public health professionals, NCDs will be our biggest challenge for the years to come. This and the fact that we still have to sustain the momentum in controlling communicable disease is a major challenge. Given the cost of treating NCDs, prevention and health promotion through a "health in all policies" approach is the key to success. 

IANPHI: What precautions and preparations are being made by NIMR in light of the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa? What key messages are being shared with the public in Tanzania about the virus?

MM: NIMR is part of the country’s Ebola Task Force and is focused mainly on laboratory preparedness and surveillance. Also, recently, in partnership with the Southern African Center for Infectious Diseases, NIMR organized a workshop called Lessons from Ebola. The meeting brought together medical and veterinary specialists, journalists, traditional healers, and researchers from a number of African countries. The idea was to gather experience from people who had dealt with Ebola epidemics in Uganda and Congo and use their experience to improve preparedness of other countries focusing on the realities on the ground.

IANPHI: In July, NIMR announced the results of a landmark study that tested an innovative water filtration formula. The results of the study indicate that the formula, “Takasamaji,”could significantly reduce incidence of diarrhea and prevent bacterial contamination of water. These statistics seem promising. How will NIMR implement a scale-up of this new system?

MM: The idea is now to engage the private sector to make the filters, and see who can produce them inexpensively but with the best quality. Other options include looking for partners who would be able to support cooperatives through microfinance, thus creating jobs while creating filters to be used in the community.

IANPHI: As one of the founders of the IANPHI-Africa network, you are leading efforts to create new communications and networking channels among the continent’s IANPHI members.  What goals does IANPHI-Africa have and what value will it add to the continent?

MM: IANPHI-Africa is a network of the African members of IANPHI, which aims to increase communication between directors of NPHIs in Africa, to make use of local NPHIs, to support countries that are just starting out with their NPHIs, and to encourage countries without NPHIs to form them. Other activities will be to develop a database of public health expertise, exchange ideas, and disseminate findings of public health research, noting the implications for other African countries.

While African countries have excellent partnerships with NPHIs in Europe and America they have little contact among themselves, and IANPHI-Africa will facilitate these partnerships to add value to these institutes. We recognize this as a problem because here in Africa is where issues are most similar but one is not aware how a neighboring country is handling it. It will also strengthen young public health leaders to be confident about the ability of Africa to start to address its own issues collectively.

IANPHI: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about your life, your work, and public health in Tanzania.

MM: Thank you for asking me to speak about my experiences.