Anna Babakhanyan is the first University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine Fellow to receive a prestigious national award from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH). Babakhanyan received the 2014 award to study how HIV infection alters the acquisition and maintenance of immunity to malaria in pregnant Kenyan women. Next year, she will spend six months in Kisumu, Kenya, where she will work with the research team at the Center for Global Health Research, Kenya Medical Research Institute.
Each year, only one postdoctoral fellow is honored with the $25,000 ASTMH Centennial Travel Award in Tropical Disease Research, which fosters international collaboration in tropical infectious diseases.
“I am very humbled and grateful to the ASTMH for this award. I know that the Lord has provided us these funds to make a breakthrough in pregnancy-associated malaria research,” said Babakhanyan.
This research bears hope for medical innovation as scientists continue to search for ways of preventing infectious diseases and assuring healthy deliveries and better lives for both mothers and infants. Babakhanyan says 85 million pregnant women worldwide are at risk of having malaria. In pregnant women, malaria-infected red blood cells accumulate in the placenta, leading to many adverse outcomes such as maternal anemia, preterm deliveries and low birth weight babies who have increased risk of death during the first year of life.
HIV and malaria epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa intersect in pregnant women. Many HIV-positive women do not receive adequate care because of weak health systems in Africa. HIV-related immunosuppression has been shown to reduce immunity to several strains of malaria. Since HIV-positive women represent a particularly vulnerable population that would benefit from the malaria vaccine during pregnancy, data from Babakhanyan’s project will be important for developing vaccines, vaccination regimens and implementation policies.
Babakhanyan earned her doctoral degree from the Department of Tropical Medicine at the John A. Burns School of Medicine. In 2012, she accompanied her mentor Diane Taylor, an expert on pregnancy-associated malaria, to Cameroon for an immunology workshop.
“I did not realize the extent of poverty, infectious disease and human suffering until my first trip to Cameroon,” said Babakhanyan.
Read the John A. Burns School of Medicine news release for more on Babakhanyan.