TDR Global profile: Research leads to global health advocacy

Professor Hannah Akuffo

Hannah Akuffo, TDR’s outgoing Joint Coordinating Board Chair, credits a childhood bout with pneumonia to initiating her interest in science that resulted in a career in infectious diseases. She is now professor of parasitology and senior research advisor at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

Hannah Akuffo
Hannah Akuffo

Hannah was 4 years old when she fell ill for the second time with double pneumonia. The first infection had passed without incident but this one left her with a fever, weak and exhausted, and so congested she struggled to breathe.

“I was very, very sick,” she says. “But the doctor who diagnosed me didn’t have penicillin, and Accra was quite far away.”

The year was 1958, and Accra was the capital of a newly-independent Ghana, the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to win its liberation from Europe’s colonial powers. Akuffo’s father, a Presbyterian pastor, had moved the family to a small town farther inland. As it happened, a pair of Catholic nuns, both nurses-in-training, had recently arrived in town and were looking for a place to stay. The Akuffos put them up, and when the nuns learned of the little girl with pneumonia – the youngest of the family’s eleven children – they offered to help.

“They were carrying penicillin with them,” remembers Akuffo. “And that’s why I’m here today. It’s really quite amazing that I’m alive.”

Indeed, prone to illness, Akuffo was always coming down with something, “and always being told to be careful,” she says. “But I was also allowed to ask all kinds of questions. In those days, a child was expected to keep quiet. But people were very nice to me – my curiosity was encouraged. I think that’s one reason I became a scientist.”

A commitment to research in low-income countries

Akuffo would study biochemistry, food science and nutrition at the University of Ghana before going on to pursue a doctorate in immunology at the University of London. As a PhD candidate, she investigated the mechanisms of resistance to Mycobacterial lepremurium, an organism used as a model of leprosy in rats and mice. There was just one problem: “I was terrified of mice,” she says with a laugh. “So I used to sing hymns to them. I don’t know what it did for the mice, but it helped me stop shaking!”

“I was very keen on this idea that people from low-income countries where these diseases are most prevalent should be able to answer their own questions.”

Hannah Akuffo

Then, at a leprosy conference in India, serendipity intervened: Akuffo met a team of researchers from the Armauer Hansen Research Institute (AHRI) in Ethiopia who were working with “real leprosy.” They offered to bring her to Addis Ababa to support their development of animal models in what was to be a short-term project.

Akuffo was so taken by the work, she hoped to return to Ethiopia after completing her postdoc in England. She applied for a longer-term position at AHRI and she got the job, but by chance she started working on a different disease: leishmaniasis. “The type of leish you have in the highlands of Ethiopia can look like leprosy,” she says, “so people often came to the leprosy hospital.”

After assisting on several studies at the AHRI, Akuffo knew she had found her calling. “Of all the infectious diseases, I ended up choosing one of the few we didn’t have in Ghana.” (Leishmaniasis wasn’t endemic in the country at the time, she clarifies, “and I didn’t bring it, by the way!”). She soon became, she says, “a leishmaniac,” and was offered a position as a visiting scientist at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, one of the world’s largest and most prestigious medical universities.

Ethiopia was also where Akuffo met her husband, Sven Britton, a professor of infectious diseases at Karolinska. “When people ask, ‘Why are you in Sweden?’ I usually say ‘For love,’” she says, adding that she learned Swedish soon after moving to Stockholm, where she has lived ever since.

A TDR grant provides a broader connection to global health

Upon moving to Sweden, Akuffo was awarded a grant from TDR to support her research on mechanisms of resistance to leishmaniasis. TDR officials saw in Akuffo a young scientist with a bright future, and invited her to serve on the Steering Committee on Leishmaniasis. “To be sitting there with all these people I admired, it was so important for my own development,” she says. “And I realized I was very keen on this idea that people from low-income countries where these diseases are most prevalent should be able to answer their own questions.”

The experience marked the beginning of a long and distinguished tenure as an advisor to programmes at TDR and elsewhere. In 1997, Akuffo became a member of TDR’s Research Strengthening Group (RSG). Three years later, then a senior research officer at SIDA, she took over as RSG Chairperson, serving in that role until 2005, when she became a member of TDR’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC). Akuffo served as Chair of the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership’s (EDCTP) General Assembly. And in 2014, she was elected Chair of TDR’s Joint Coordinating Board, its top governing body.

Although Akuffo is stepping down as JCB Chairperson, her commitment to research capacity strengthening in low-income countries remains undiminished. Though shy by nature, Akuffo continues to make her voice heard, much as she did in 2014, when she challenged Bill Gates on his lack of willingness to support research capacity strengthening during the philanthropist’s 2014 visit to Karolinska.

Hannah Akuffo is a member of TDR Global, a platform for research networking. She has offered to be a mentor, and can be reached through her profile at TDR Global.

Anyone who has worked with TDR can become a member of TDR Global. This provides further exposure of your work, and the opportunity to find research collaborations and either be a mentor or ask for a mentor. For further information, email: tdrglobal@who.int.


For more information, contact:
Jamie Guth
TDR Communications Manager
Telephone: +41 79 441 2289
E-mail: guthj@who.int