Ijeoma works with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer, aka disease detective. “My position is global. I’ve gone everywhere,” says Ijeoma, pictured in front of the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo courtesy of CDC
In the past year alone, Ugonna Ijeoma ’12 MD has travelled to Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Cambodia, and Thailand – “but I barely have any photos from my time in those countries,” she says.
An elite Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer or “disease detective” with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Ijeoma works with the Key Population Team on preventing and curbing the spread of HIV among high-risk or high-stigma populations, including sex workers, homosexuals, and drug users.
“My position is global,” she says. “I’ve gone everywhere.” That includes Nigeria, whose most populous city, Lagos, was her home from the time she was four years old.
“One of the workers came up to me, said she’d been in health care for five years, and that a lot of people who leave Nigeria never come back. I came back,” says Ijeoma.
In Nigeria, Ijeoma worked to reduce or eliminate discrimination in health care services, where sex workers and prostitutes are both plentiful and stigmatized to the point of being shunned from society and sometimes refused treatment for diseases. In Ghana, she held focus groups and in-depth discussions with both sick populations and health care providers to determine how best to improve accessibility to treatment. In Cambodia, where an unlicensed doctor caused an HIV outbreak in 2014—15, she coordinated with the minister of health there to look into improving the safety of injection practices.
“Once you’re a healthcare provider, you should provide care to the people who need care,” says Ijeoma. “It’s not about what you choose to believe.” She contrasts the practices with those in America, where patients are supposed to receive emergency health care regardless of social status or immediate ability to pay.
Ijeoma attended Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, where she discovered UConn through the medical school’s Health Career Opportunity Program. The day after her interview, she was called with an acceptance offer. Despite acceptances at four other medical schools, she didn’t hesitate.
“They had wanted to find out about me as an individual, not just my test scores,” Ijeoma says. “It was about me and what I wanted.”
Between her first and second years, she spearheaded a project through the school’s international research program to study risky behavior among youth in western Africa, especially concerning HIV infection. Her report, which relied heavily on on-the-ground surveys and data analysis, won an award and landed her a speaking slot at a conference in Mexico. That in turn helped secure her a spot in the six-week epidemiology program at the CDC in Atlanta, which turned into a job there after her residency in internal medicine at UConn School of Medicine.
Most Americans know the CDC less for its behind-the-scenes efforts such as those to which Ijeoma contributes, and more for its responses to headline-grabbing emergencies, such as Ebola in 2014 or the current Zika virus scare.
“The Ebola crisis was a good example of how fast false information can be spread. Be very careful about where you’re getting your information from,” Ijeoma warns. “Very simple stuff like handwashing transcends most diseases. It’s one of the universal precautions you can take.”
Her own career has already proved more far-reaching and dramatic than she dared hope.
“I’m living my dream right now. It combines all my interests: medicine, public health, policy, travel, meeting new people,” says Ijeoma.
“This is exactly what I wanted to do with my life.”