As a medical student in 2007, Jennifer A. Downs, M.D. thought she wanted to become an infectious disease specialist, possibly in a U.S. inner city. But it wasn’t until she spent six weeks at Tanzania’s Bugando Medical Centre, a sister hospital to New York City’s Weill Cornell Medical College, where she was a medical resident, that she found the home base of her life’s calling.

“I saw women in their early twenties, who were younger than I was at the time, dying of AIDS,” recalls Dr. Downs, now an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell’s Center for Global Health. “The experience opened my eyes to the depth of need there, especially for women. I felt inspired to go back and do more.”

A year later, in 2008, Dr. Downs followed that inspiration, returning to Bugando Medical Centre to complete her fellowship, then stay on as a doctor, researcher, and professor. Since then, northern Tanzania’s Mwanza Region has been her home and the location of her extensive research, which aims to help put an end to the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa.

Battling an Epidemic

Dr. Downs’ main focus is on women’s health and HIV, and her work fighting the spread of the disease is critical: Out of the approximately 25 million people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, almost 60 percent are women, according to UNAIDS. Gender inequities in health care in Africa means that females may be more vulnerable to preventable diseases, she says. 

In Tanzania, where access to medical care and doctor-patient ratios are meager compared to the U.S., Dr. Downs juggles multiple roles. She sees patients at Bugando Medical Centre; about a quarter of adult medical admissions are HIV positive, she says. And she’s committed to teaching medical students and residents. “I believe in empowering Tanzanian doctors to take care of their own people,” says Dr. Downs. "Building capability and competencies in-country are essential to ensuring the health of their citizens."

How a Deadly Parasite Plays a Role

Dr. Downs and Researchers
Dr. Downs is a 2014 Grand Challenges Exploration winner, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Her HIV prevention research has led her to study schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease contracted through contaminated water. The area around Lake Victoria in Tanzania, which includes Mwanza City, has a high incidence of schistosomiasis, because people depend on contaminated water for chores such as washing dishes and doing laundry.

Women in Mwanza usually handle these tasks, which is why many of them are infected, says Dr. Downs. And though it can have serious health consequences on its own, schistosomiasis may be a risk factor for HIV.

“Schistosomiasis may make women more susceptible to HIV by causing lesions or inflammation in the genital tract, which make it easier for the virus to infect,” says Dr. Downs, one of the few researchers exploring the relationship between HIV and schistosomiasis.

Coca-Cola Lends a Helping Hand

Building on her initial studies, Dr. Downs is now seeking more conclusive answers about the role schistosomiasis plays in HIV infection. Gathering data in this part of the world is not easy. Dr. Downs and her team drive hours along dusty roads to rural villages, where many women have never had reproductive healthcare and where schistosomiasis is rampant.

Once there, she screens and treats schistosomiasis and collects cell samples from patients to take back to her Mwanza City lab for analysis. These may potentially contain clues to the link between the two diseases.

Immediately after collection, the cell samples need to be frozen to maintain their integrity. To ensure this, she obtains dry ice from a local Coca-Cola bottler, Coca-Cola Sabco, about 10 miles outside Mwanza City. Dr. Downs goes to the bottler herself, watching the Coke technician fills up her cooler with enough dry ice to last her for a couple days of fieldwork. Then, she'll go back to obtain more as needed.

“If it weren’t for the support of the Coca-Cola bottler, I’d need dry ice flown to Mwanza,” says Dr. Downs. “The costs and logistics would make it difficult to accomplish this research. Coca-Cola has really opened doors.”

Encouraging News

Projects and initiatives such as those of Dr. Downs may be contributing to some promising new statistics. Comparing 2005 and 2013, new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa were down 33 percent and AIDS-related deaths there dropped almost 40 percent, reports UNAIDS.

Dr. Downs mainly credits greater access to antiretroviral therapy and campaigns promoting male circumcision for the downturns. “I don’t believe my research has affected the HIV epidemic yet, but it’s the long-term goal,” she says.

Coca-Cola is honored to be part of Dr. Downs’ efforts, and we’re also proud that she is a 2014 Grand Challenges Exploration winner, an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The $100,000 grant will help Dr. Downs and her team promote male circumcision in local churches as a means to reduce the likelihood of HIV infection. (Studies show that male circumcision can cut HIV infection rates by 60 percent.) “I hope our work demonstrates the effectiveness of promoting public health measures in church settings in sub-Saharan Africa for future projects.”