Gonese: Public health expert par excellence

WHEN typhoid struck the country in 2017, registering 11 deaths from 181 confirmed cases, Zimbabwean Elizabeth Gonese, pictured, was one of the health experts deployed by the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help contain the outbreak of the waterborne disease.

Gonese is a public health specialist at CDC, where, among other things, she deals with the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases.

“I have supported outbreak investigation activities during cholera and typhoid outbreaks in Zimbabwe. I also had the privilege of working in Liberia for three months from July to September 2015 as a team member on the epi-surveillance integrated disease surveillance and response. Our main duties were training local teams on Ebola surveillance and contact tracing,” she told the Daily News on Sunday.

Apart from helping Zimbabwe contain waterborne diseases, the former University of Zimbabwe lecturer in the department of biological sciences has also been involved in the crafting of HIV and tuberculosis interventions.

“My job as an epidemiologist at CDC entails supporting the ministry of Health in establishing surveillance systems and facility based and general population level surveys conducting studies. My main focus has up to 2020 been in HIV and tuberculosis,” Gonese said.

Whenever epidemiology is mentioned in Zimbabwe and Africa, Gonese’s name almost always pops up. She is highly regarded due to the instrumental role she continues to play in combating outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and typhoid.

Throughout her 16-year stint at CDC’s Zimbabwe branch, Gonese has made a name for herself as a prolific writer in scores of international peer reviewed science journals.

She attributes her love for writing and books in general to her upbringing. The public health specialist said growing up in a family of educationists stirred in her a reading and researching culture at a very tender age.

Her father, who served as a headmaster at several schools in Zimbabwe, pushed his daughter to aim for high grades in the sciences she had developed a huge interest in.

“My parents were teachers, with my father a headmaster at several schools in Zimbabwe. As a result, education was always viewed as a necessity rather than a luxury,” Gonese told the Daily News on Sunday.

Gonese’s pursuit of education took her from Wadzanai and Hatfield Primary schools in Harare to Lord Malvern in the capital city, Pamushana in Bikita District and Mutare Girls High where she did her secondary education.

From an early age, the mother of two was dead set on a career in the health field.
Though she is delighted that she fulfilled her childhood dream of being a health worker, she is, however, unhappy with the state of Zimbabwe’s health system.

Gonese is particularly unhappy with the way the government has handled frontline health workers employed in the public sector.

“It is a challenging environment. My recommendations are that the government should pay its workers a decent salary,” she said.

Gonese, who draws her inspiration from American epidemiologist Donna Jonnes, thinks, though, that Zimbabwe deserves special praise for managing to put the HIV pandemic under control.

According to data obtained by UNAIDS Zimbabwe for 2018, there has been a 60 percent decline in the number of AIDS-related deaths since 2010 from 54 000 to 22 000. The number of new HIV infections has also decreased from 62 000 to 38 000.

“Thanks to aggressive efforts by the government and partners such as PEPFAR and the Global Fund, the HIV situation is now under control. However, there is neglect of non-communicable diseases. People are struggling to access medicines for diabetes and high blood pressure and this is really sad.

“Significant support has been provided to the area of health-related strategic information. The CDC supported the conduct of the Antenatal Clinic Surveillance. This was the main source of statistics on HIV, and in 2004/5 CDC supported the addition of HIV testing in the Zimbabwe Demography and Health Survey, which measured HIV prevalence in the general population.

“Another big survey supported by CDC are the two rounds (2016 and 2019) of the Zimbabwe HIV Impact Assessment (Zimphia) which measured HIV incidence (estimate of the number of new infections) in the general population as well as the impact of HIV care and treatment programmes in Zimbabwe,” said the public health expert.

She told the Daily News on Sunday that she has mastered the art of balancing her demanding career and family responsibilities.

Just like her, she wants Zimbabwean girls not to be discouraged from pursuing their dreams because of fear of pressure.

“I thrive on being busy and juggling three or more things at the same time. To the girl child I just want to say: believe in yourself, each one of us has a measure of resilience that we should capitalise on for our benefit. Learn from those who have gone before you,” Gonese said.

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