LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 17, 2022) — For Chioma Okafor, public health was not something she was focused on early in her education. Everything changed when she attended an event her senior year of college that featured a public health physician discussing his work in Haiti. She was inspired by the physician’s efforts to build AIDS clinics and community health services in rural areas of a country with high needs and low resources.
“The pride and passion the physician displayed stood out to me and I thought to myself, 'I want to feel this way about the work that I do,'” said Okafor.
Okafor personally identified with some of the topics the physician discussed. Growing up in Nigeria in the 1990s, she said HIV/AIDS was a disease that was spoken about in hushed tones and was often recognized as a death sentence once a person was diagnosed. She remembers the physician speaking about how the clinics were able to treat and provide other services for patients who were able to go on to live healthy lives. This realization was the starting point for Okafor's career in global health.
The University of Kentucky Master of Public Health (MPH) alumna (‘13) is currently working as country program manager at Pact, an international nonprofit based in Washington D.C. Her project at Pact supports HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment initiatives in eight countries with the goal of achieving and sustaining epidemic control in targeted populations. Since the project began last year, more than 61,000 orphans and caregivers as well as 53,000 adolescent girls and young women have been provided with comprehensive services that address their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.
Okafor gives credit to several of her courses at the UK College of Public Health for her knowledge of resolving global health disparities. It was in these courses that she learned that global public health is focused on resolving large-scale health inequities that are rooted in the social and transnational determinants of health.
During and after her time as a student at UK, Okafor pursued opportunities to address health disparities in her home country of Nigeria. In her roles as clinical services associate and later as technical officer at a health consulting firm, she was able to collaborate with the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA), and the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Health to address HIV/AIDS and malaria. She also held roles at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) supporting injury prevention and environmental health programs both in the U.S. and globally.
“These solutions required the buy-in and input from the communities they were being implemented in," said Okafor. "It showed me the importance of investing in community-based, participatory approaches that shift attitudes and promote the uptake of prevention and treatment strategies.”
As a Nigerian-American, Okafor sees Black History Month as an opportunity to recognize the commonalities that exist between the African diaspora and Black Americans. She says the communities are drawn together by roots of oppression, whether through colonialism or slavery, but with a keen sense of history, perseverance, and shared solidarity.
“Black History Month is not only a time to remember the contributions of African Americans to civil rights and liberty that enabled my family and me to immigrate to the United States, but also an opportunity for the Black community to come together and build a bridge for discourse and progression,” said Okafor. “Although Black History has been designated to be celebrated in the month of February, Black History is American History, and we must always consciously celebrate Black empowerment and achievements in the United States and all over the world.”
The UK College of Public Health believes in developing health champions. Okafor describes a health champion as an advocate for equitable health care that utilizes the tools at their disposal to solve challenges faced by the vulnerable. Her definition of a health champion extends to those on the front lines of COVID-19.
“As we battle the current COVID-19 pandemic, the bravery and commitment of frontline health care workers across the globe in treating the sick and showing their commitment to the health of their patients cannot be overestimated,” she said. “They are the true champions of health and must be provided with adequate personal protective equipment and prioritized for vaccination as well safe working conditions and adequate compensation.”
Outside of her work, Okafor finds time to give back in a variety of ways. She volunteers with the Capitol Area Food Bank in Washington D.C., and serves on the board of directors of the Bokamoso Foundation, a South African nonprofit which mobilizes financial support, mentorship, and guidance to the staff and young people of the Bokamoso Life Centre in Winterveldt, South Africa. Additionally, she is a mentor for recent graduates and emerging professionals in public health through the American Public Health Association and the Women in International Affairs Network.
The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers." We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.