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Alumna focuses on community health during COVID-19 in Afghanistan

Fatima Arifi ’20 is among the first girls in her family to attend school and the first to have gone abroad to study for her master’s degree.

“I am from the Ghazni province and live in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. It is a male-dominated society where education is discouraged for women, but I had my mom’s support to go to school while my father was away and living abroad,” Arifi said. “My mom, who is illiterate and has had trouble in life, as a result, had higher hopes for her daughters to be educated and independent. After observing my commitment and motivation to go to school, my father and relatives agreed to allow me to get an education.”

While she attended local universities for her bachelor’s degree, Arifi chose to travel more than 7,000 miles to earn her Master of Public Health with a concentration in Epidemiology at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, where she could learn the skills she knew she needed to make a difference in her country, such as data analysis, critical thinking and report writing.

“The knowledge that I gained in epidemiology from FIU has been particularly critical for working with international organizations in Afghanistan,” she explained.  

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Arifi was working remotely with Oxford University and the international COVID-19 modeling (CoMo) consortium to model COVID-19 for Afghanistan and to explore the impact of different non-pharmaceutical interventions in mitigating the impact of the novel coronavirus in resource-limited and conflicted countries like Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has more than 35,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a population of just over 35 million.

“Observing the increased cases in Afghanistan, I wanted to focus on my country and give back to my community during this hard time where my small contribution can have a huge impact,” said Arifi. “Thus, I applied for a position with the World Health Organization (WHO) as an International Health Regulations Officer.”

Working for the WHO, Arifi’s primary role now is to support the development of the core capacities required for preparedness and response to the Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEICs), including COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan. She is mainly preventing cross border and national spread of PHEICs in the country and contributing to global health security.

“Although Afghanistan has passed the peak, sustained community transmission is occurring and the country is conducting a seroprevalence survey to determine the burden of COVID-19 in Afghanistan so that evidence-based decisions can be made for the coming months,” Arifi said. “In a country where the number of epidemiologists is less than the number of my fingers on my hand, there is a critical need for experts.”

The country lacks skilled national epidemiologists, which results in the need for international organizations and experts to assist in creating health education programs.

“We need more national experts who understand the local culture to do the tasks and train other fellow epidemiologists in the country. While many would prefer to work abroad than in a conflict-affected country like Afghanistan, I want to make an impact on my own country by working to reduce the morbidity and mortality rates due to epidemic-prone diseases such as respiratory tract infection and measles, which are highly prevalent in the country.”

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