Muslim Arab woman fighting Ebola wins Federal Employee of the Year Award

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Rana Hajjeh should probably be your role model. Originally from Tripoli, Lebanon, she did her undergraduate and medial studies at the American University of Beirut. From 1988 to 1993, she trained in Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. She joined the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) at the United States Center for Disease Control for training in 1993. She has also been the director of the Surveillance Program at the U.S. Navy Medical Research Unit-3 (NAMRU3) in Cairo, Egypt where she worked with the World Health Organization to set up systems for lab-based surveillance and outbreak response. From 2005-2009 she was the director of the Global Alliance for Vaccine and Immunization (GAVI)’s Hib Initiative which is a consortium that includes John Hopkins School of Public Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, CDC and WHO, which accelerated evidence-based decisions for Hib vaccines in GAVI eligible countries. This included life saving Hib vaccines in 73 countries to millions of children. In 2014, she won the Federal Employee of the Year award for her Hib vaccine work. The nonprofit, nonparty Partnership for Public Service presented the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals (Sammies), and the top medal was awarded to Dr. Hajjeh. A Muslim Lebanese woman won the top award.

Dr. Hajjeh is a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a Visiting Professor of both Medicine and Public Health at Emory University. She is the director of the Division of Bacterial Diseases at the Center of Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases. She basically leads teams of about 200 people whom are responsible for the CDC’s bacterial and vaccine-preventable disease surveillance and response efforts in the US and globally. Dr. Hajjeh has worked on the response and control of epidemic meningitis in Africa and Saudi Arabia, Anthrax, SARS, Cholera in Haiti and MERS in Saudi Arabia. She explains that “it is important to have an Arab American winning the top Federal award.” She hopes that the Lebanese community understands that “if a girl from a regular middle class family from Tripoli can achieve this, it’s a message of hope.”

Dr. Hajjeh visited over 30 African countries between 2005-2014. She has gone there for a variety of different reasons from following up on research studies to evaluating programs in place. However, the main goal is usually to work with ministries of health officials to help childhood vaccines that protect from pneumonia and meningitis. Dr. Hajjeh inevitably has to meet with officials and doctors throughout the country in question to understand its specific countrywide concerns: financial burdens, disease burdens, vaccine supplies and distribution issues, data collection or research. She was recently in Sierra Leone working on issues dealing with Ebola.

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“I learned that all humans share the same interest, which is to have happy, healthy children. Parents often, even in poor countries, want to do anything to have healthy children, but they often don’t know what to do or cannot afford it. I feel it is our responsibility as a global community to work with poor countries to provide vaccines and other prevention measures to their children. It is unacceptable for children to die from preventable diseases in the 21st century.” When asked how she thinks science can contribute to facing terrorism in the Arab world, she explains that the public health system must be strong enough to combat bioterrorism. This can be through surveillance, effective laboratories and response systems. Ultimately, Dr. Hajjeh hopes to represent her Muslim-Arab background in a way that shifts perspective. She says that as an immigrant she has always been driven by the idea that she had to prove it. It served her well and she feels grateful that she gets to be in a country that allowed her to reach her full potential irrespective of her background or her “connections.” Ultimately, Dr. Hajjeh acknowledges that her success isn’t about her only. It is about “illustrating someone in the Arab and Muslim American community” that the youth can relate to, that some in the West can be challenged by and who can shift the narrative.




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