UVA Infectious Disease Fellow awarded Burroughs Wellcome Fund/ASTMH Postdoctoral Fellowship in Tropical Infectious Diseases

Dr. Ghassan Ilaiwy, a postdoctoral fellow in the Divisio of Infectious Diseases and International Health at UVA, was awarded the Burroughs Wellcome Fund/American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) Postdoctoral Fellowship in Tropical Infectious Diseases. The fellowship is designed to fund and stimulate interest for physician-scientists to conduct research focused on infectious diseases in Low-to-Middle-Income Countries (LMICs). The award was established in 1999 and is open to individuals with an academic appointment of a fellow. Recipients receive funding support of two $65,000 per year for two years and must spend a minimum of three months of each funded year performing research overseas. Designed to stimulate or sustain interest in research in tropical infectious diseases, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund Award provides funding for physician-scientists to conduct research focused on infectious diseases in Low-to-Middle-Income Countries (LMICs)s.

Originally from Syria, Dr. Ilaiwy completed his medical degree at Damascus University. Dr. Ilaiwy moved to the United States for residency, where he completed his training in Internal Medicine at Georgetown’s Medstar Washington Hospital Center and a Masters in Public Health (MPH) from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. During his time at Johns Hopkins, he became interested in economic evaluation and cost-effectiveness in healthcare. Dr. Ilaiwy was drawn to Infectious Disease early on in medical school in Syria as he found the specialty intellectually stimulating. Dr. Ilaiwy remarked, "You have to be aware of all the body systems as an Infectious Disease specialist. Therefore, you have to be a good internist. My other draw was that I always wanted to be engaged in global health. Infectious Disease is a specialty with great alignment between the clinical skills gained in fellowship and global health work."

Dr. Ilaiwy's interest in global health was sparked during the latter half of medical school which coincided with the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. Prior to the Civil War, Syria had a spartan but well-functioning public health system that provided essential and critical care to its citizens. However, within a year that system started to disintegrate as the war continued. Dr. Ilaiwy reflected that soon his hometown in the North East of Syria, as well as  many parts of the country, lost access to healthcare as the healthcare infrastructure was compromised. This coincided with Dr. Ilaiwy’s last year of medical school, and greatly influenced his current work and interest in capacity building and implementation science.

Now in his Infectious Disease Fellowship at the University of Virginia Health System, Dr. Ilaiwy works with Dr. Scott Heysell and Dr. Tania Thomas to develop interventional strategies and cost-effective analyses for tuberculosis prevention and improved case finding in high-burden settings, including Haydom, Tanzania. Over the past year, Dr. Ilaiwy has worked to identify undiagnosed tuberculosis patients and found a huge burden among household members of people receiving TB treatment. Worldwide, an estimated one-third of tuberculosis patients are waiting to be connected to resources and the challenge is to connect entire households to the recommended testing for tuberculosis. Dr. Ilaiwy has been piloting a cash transfer initiative, which provides a small monetary incentive to decrease the barriers to accessing care for tuberculosis.

The Burroughs Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship in Tropical Infectious Diseases will fund the follow-up study to the cash transfer pilot study. The follow-up will include a comparative group to formally evaluate the impact of cash transfer on improving TB screening among household contacts. The upcoming study will also evaluate the intersection of TB incidence and undernutrition in part by measuring height, weight, mid-arm, and mid-upper arm circumference to see if undernutrition would predict a household contact probability of developing active TB disease over a two-year follow up period. As part of this work, Dr. Ilaiwy has worked with undergraduates like Caroline Rich to conduct a systematic review evaluating all evidence of cash transfers on tuberculosis outcomes. Caroline says, “Dr. Ilaiwy and I are on a team that is conducting a systematic review under the leadership of Dr. Werner Maokola. Specifically, we are looking at the effectiveness of food assistance/supplementation and cash transfers on tuberculosis patients; outcomes. On this project, Dr. Ilaiwy has been a collaborative, understanding, and thoughtful mentor. He has been extremely helpful in directing the progression of the project and using his expertise to finalize our project's focus. I feel like I have not only gained insight into the next steps of our project but also a better understanding of what is important when conducting public health research.

Dr. Ilaiwy finds that one of the most satisfying parts of his work is the partnerships both in-country and between training levels. Dr. Ilaiwy said, "Working with the next generation has been one of the most satisfying aspects of this work. I am still in training and have a deep belief in the importance of lifelong learning." Dr. Ilaiwy will also collaborate with Emily Kaplan, a UVA medical student to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of tuberculosis stool testing in children admitted with pneumonia or undernutrition in Haydom. This satisfaction further extends to his partnership with in-country mentors, like Dr. Esto Mduma and Dr. Saning'o Lukumay who provide ample insights into the cultural nuances of designing and completing research projects in a different environment. One of Dr. Ilaiwy’s favorite memories was the Haydom Half Marathon, which was a 13-mile run with many members of the Haydom community as well as visiting researchers and medical students competing in the race. Dr. Ilaiwy reflected that it was deeply meaningful to be part of the community and establishing relationships beyond research is another source of joy in global health.

Dr. Tania Thomas, Associate Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at UVA, and Dr. Scott Heysell, Thomas H. Hunter Associate Professor of International Medicine, have worked in the country for 15 years growing research and educational experience for students and trainees at the University of Virginia and Tanzanians. Dr. Ilaiwy joins previous winners and former Infectious Disease Fellows from the University of Virginia including Dr. Yusra Alkabab (2020) (former, Center for Global Health Equity Scholar), Dr. James Platts-Mills (2014), and Dr. Scott Heysell (2008). In his spare time, he enjoys the company of friends and family, spending time outside in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and traveling. His most recent adventure was to Panama where he got to watch ships traversing the locks of the Panama Canal.

Author: Owen Selden,

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