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May 14, 2021

Student view: Tackling zoonotic infections globally

Azam Ali Sher is a dual degree fourth-year doctoral student in the College of Veterinary Medicine. His research interests are heavily focused on emerging infectious diseases, and, currently, he is studying the spread and emergence of antibiotic resistance among life-threatening bacteria. Sher is a recipient of the Witter Fellowship for the academic year of 2020-21 and the BEACON Fellowship award for 2021-22.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the biggest crises humanity has faced in a whole century. Globally, millions of people suffered and died from this lethal infection in a short period of time. Unfortunately, we are still living in a pandemic even after a year and a half.

Based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 60% of recently reported infections are zoonotic that can be transmissible among animals and humans. As an infectious disease epidemiologist and researcher, I always think about how I can contribute to preventing these emerging zoonotic infections like COVID-19 and save lives.

While closely monitoring the worsening global situation of COVID-19, I observed that an infodemic — a storm of false information spread all over social media — was one of the biggest challenges to contain the pandemic. To fight against myths and incorrect information related to COVID-19, I initially started writing social media posts, giving invited talks and creating awareness videos.

Back in 2018, I founded a student volunteers-based nonprofit organization, Kher-Kun, which means “well-wisher” in Arabic. Having Kher-Kun as a platform, I thought, “Why not build an online program that can empower students and create a compelling awareness message about COVID-19 to the local community of Pakistan?”

In Fall 2020, I led a global outreach initiative, Student Leaders in Public Health in Pakistan (SLPH), in collaboration with Kher-Kun, U.S. Mission to Pakistan and Pak-U.S. Alumni Network (PUAN). This virtual program is entirely designed based on the One Health concept, where students and speakers from diverse backgrounds (physicians, veterinarians, pharmacists and environmentalists) are brought together to create a strategy to spread awareness and control zoonotic infections.

The goal was to recruit passionate students from multiple universities of Pakistan and empower them in public health, particularly COVID-19 and other zoonotic diseases, through virtual training sessions. For that, I organized a team of brilliant public health professionals, including Fulbright scholars, fellow Spartan graduate students and local U.S. health professionals, to train these recruited students by weekly scheduled online sessions.

More than 40 students from 17 different Pakistani universities were selected and trained through this semester-long virtual program. These students are currently working as public health activists and have further engaged over 1900 university students from all over the country by hosting online webinars, writing blogs and creating short videos on COVID-19 and other public health issues. For example, an informative session on “Zoonotic Diseases in Pakistan and Their Prevention” was conducted by six trained students from five different universities where they engaged and educated around 280 fellow students across the country. Similarly, other trainee students hosted multiple public awareness sessions on rabies, dengue fever, tuberculosis and more. Quiz, blog and infographic competitions were also conducted to engage more students and spread awareness on COVID-19 effectively.  

This ongoing virtual initiative has provided a platform to many public health aspirants and students who want to save lives and bring a positive change to society. Additionally, it is a powerful way to engage local U.S. students and professionals to teach global student communities and tackle emerging public health issues timely. Considering the impact and need for this work, I will work with my project fellows to launch another program in Fall 2021 to engage and train more students from different countries to address global health issues.

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