A global outlook on health: Iyabo Obasanjo brings experience from Africa, veterinary medicine to COVID-19 policy work

by Tina Eshleman, University Advancement

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March 7, 2022

The following story originally appeared in the winter 2022 W&M Alumni Magazine. – Ed.

When she first heard there were concerns about a new virus from China, Dr. Iyabo Obasanjo was at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, leading a group of 15 William & Mary students on a study-abroad program.

During a session about health issues on Jan. 6, 2020, a presenter mentioned an emerging virus and left the room. Later, the William & Mary group entered a situation room while on a tour and briefly saw a map with red arrows pointing out of Wuhan, China, before the screen switched to a regular world map.

“It was showing all the flights that had left China already,” says Obasanjo, an assistant professor of kinesiology at William & Mary since 2017. “I thought, ‘That’s not good.’ But even I could not have predicted how bad it would get.”

Obasanjo helps craft William & Mary’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the university’s Public Health Advisory Team (PHAT). Since summer 2020, the team chaired by Chief Operating Officer and COVID-19 Director Amy Sebring MPP ’95 has provided guidance on how to safeguard the health of the university’s approximately 9,000 students and 700 faculty and staff members.

Along with fellow epidemiologist and kinesiology assistant professor Carrie Dolan, physicians David Dafashy and Virginia Wells, and Chief Technology Officer Corinne Picataggi, Obasanjo has made policy recommendations for mask wearing and physical distancing, COVID-19 testing and case management, and vaccination requirements.

Discussion in a Dec. 2, 2021, meeting focused on COVID-19 testing for students prior to arrival for the spring 2022 semester and concerns about whether COVID-19 vaccines would continue to protect against the omicron variant.

Originally from Lagos, Nigeria, Obasanjo is the daughter of former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. In 2003, she survived an ambush by unknown attackers that killed five people on the day of her father’s election.

Undeterred by the horror of that experience, Iyabo Obasanjo went on to serve as a senator and state health commissioner in her native country, making her exceptionally well positioned to offer a global perspective on health matters.

She has also served on the board of UN Women USA, a nonprofit that supports United Nations women’s programs, and she often speaks on issues related to women’s health.

As a health commissioner in the Nigerian state of Ogun, Obasanjo once managed a cholera outbreak.

“We had to tell a whole part of the city to stop drinking water and to supply them with bottled water until there was no cholera,” she says. She made that determination through wastewater testing — a tool that was also used at William & Mary to help identify where COVID-19 was present and accelerate tests in those areas. If the virus appeared in wastewater samples, Obasanjo checked records of on-campus positive cases to find out where it might be coming from.

Before earning a doctorate in epidemiology from Cornell University, Obasanjo received a doctor of veterinary medicine degree from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and a master’s in preventive veterinary medicine from the University of California at Davis. Her knowledge of veterinary medicine proved to be useful in evaluating COVID-19 trends.

“A farmer looks at the population of animals, and that translates to managing epidemics,” Obasanjo says. “You are not looking at the individual, you’re looking at the population. I monitor the national, state and county levels — are cases rising or are cases falling? Where are cases coming from? Is there a pattern, and how do we break that pattern?”

Obasanjo has emphasized that vaccines need to be available throughout the world to keep new COVID-19 strains from developing and to stop the pandemic.

As part of her role on the Public Health Advisory Team, Obasanjo serves as William & Mary’s liaison to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), sending a weekly summary about instances of COVID-19 on campus.

“In a way, it takes me back to working directly with public health in addition to teaching it,” she says.

Among the courses she teaches are a large lecture class called Introduction to Global Health and a freshman writing seminar focused on community health research.

The connection with VDH led to one of her current research projects, which involves a community health workers program serving low-income housing areas in Richmond, Virginia. With help from student researchers, Obasanjo is studying data and conducting interviews with health care workers to evaluate the impact that the program has had since it was launched 10 years ago.

Such programs came about as a way to serve poor communities outside the United States where there are not enough health professionals to take care of the population, she says.

“The idea is you train people with connections to the community in basic preventive health measures,” she says. “It’s a low-cost intervention in poor communities. When health care workers who understand the residents’ lives are talking to them, they find it more acceptable.”

During the pandemic, for instance, community health care workers in Richmond have offered guidance to residents about issues such as the importance of vaccination and COVID-19 testing.

Another of Obasanjo’s research projects looks at COVID-19 trends in African countries and whether those countries implemented measures such as lockdowns or closing their borders in response to the pandemic. Students are assisting by researching data from organizations such as the World Health Organization and World Bank and from news reports.

Unlike early projections, rates of infection have not been as high in many poorer nations as they are in wealthier countries, despite the lack of access to vaccination and health care generally, she says. That’s because there is less movement in and out of the poorer countries.

“The research is to find out what factors are associated with COVID-19 rates in African countries so we can predict what will happen with other diseases,” she says. “How do you manage your health system for future pandemics?”

Obasanjo says there is debate, for example, about whether shutdowns and lockdowns cause more harm than good, considering their economic impact. But data shows that they can be effective in protecting public health, she says.

“Shutdowns that prevent generalized infection save lives. In saving lives, you save your ability to turn the economy around,” she says. “From a policy perspective, what I do is evaluate what policies countries should put in place to prevent not just COVID but pandemics in the future — what can be done short-term and long-term to improve health outcomes.”