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Dr Yonga: I used to accompany my uncle in his clinical ward rounds in Nairobi Hospital. Seeing how good his medical life was, I was motivated to do exactly what he used to do and practise medicine.

Occupation: Medical Doctor 

Speciality: Infectious diseases 

Place of work: Landmark Plaza and Fountain Healthcare Hospital 

ESTHER: Thank you so much for finding time to have this interview. Kindly share with us a brief history about yourself.

Dr Yonga: My name is Dr Paul Yonga. I come from a family of 7 members and I have siblings. I am an infectious diseases and tropical travel diseases specialist in private practice in Nairobi and Eldoret. I schooled in Nairobi for both primary school and high school and further did A-level at St. Elizabeth’s in Karen. I then sat for the Uganda Advanced Certificate for exams in preparation to join medical school in Uganda after which I joined Kampala University for an undergraduate degree in medicine and surgery until 2011. I then joined MTRH in Eldoret for my internship program in 2013 after which I started my post graduate training in infectious diseases in Europe for 3 years. In 2016 after my internal  medicine training, I joined the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases to sub-specialize in infectious diseases across Europe. During the same period, I also did a Masters of Sciences specialising in tropical medicine and International Health in Belgium. Between January and August 2019, I joined South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand for subspecialty in Travel medicine.
I am currently dating.

ESTHER: That was amazing. What motivated you to practise medicine?

Dr Yonga: Well, I was motivated by a couple of things: My uncle is a cardiologist working in Nairobi until recently when he transferred to Kisumu. I used to accompany him in his clinical ward rounds in Nairobi Hospital. Seeing how good his medical life was, I was motivated to do exactly what he used to do and practise medicine.

ESTHER: And did you choose to specialise in infectious and tropical diseases and not any other field? 

Dr Yonga: To be honest, I was not so sure on infectious and tropical diseases, I actually wanted to be a surgeon. But when I was in my third year of medical school in Uganda, I visited a certain hospital where 90-95% of patients coming in were infected with HIV?AIDS and by then ARV drugs usage was not as spread unlike currently. Most of the patients would come in verys sick and eventually die. At that particular time, it was fascinating to see how the pathophysiology of HIV as well as the interaction between TB and HIV were going on during the encounter with the patients. With the high mortality rate, I was motivated to see how in the future we could  improve survival and treatment strategies for people living with HIV. During my internship program, at the internal medicine rotation, I was inspired by an American Professor who taught me different infectious diseases like HIV and TB. 

ESTHER: That is great. So, if you were not accepted to medical school, would you have an alternative career path and still pursue your motivation? 

Dr Yonga: At that time, I was either going to become a doctor or a pilot but my major emphasis was on medicine. But in my high school years, I made sure to select Geography and Physics just in case I failed in Biology and Chemistry which are major subjects required for one to pursue medicine, I made sure Physics and Geography were in a good line for me to go for aviation school. Other than the two, I think I would have had a hard time figuring out what to do.

ESTHER: How do you see the future of infectious diseases?

Dr Yonga: It is quite evident that infectious diseases management has a key role to play in global health security and diplomacy. Recently, COVID-19 has greatly posed problems and affected the integrity of health in all sectors. There has been a tag of wars between WHO and certain countries and some others countries even holding back  vaccine development. Infectious diseases will bring specialties knowledge on how to combat certain pandemics and clinically manage patients coming in with infectious disease. 

Although we as infectious diseases specialists are so few and sometimes we get overwhelmed, I would say that there is hope for any doctor looking forward to specialising. There are a lot of opportunities to try.

ESTHER: Work-life balance can be a challenge for a busy doctor such as you. Can you share with us about how you were able to balance between work and family?

Dr Yonga: Initially it was quite challenging. You see specialising in infectious diseases takes 6 years alone, omitting undergraduate classes and internships. So one requires a minimum of 13 years to be a fully qualified infectious diseases specialist. You may experience a lot of problems especially if you are not focused. Time management was something very serious to observe especially when I was studying in Europe. 

After coming back to Kenya, it’s slightly easier to create my time to relax since I have a number of young doctors who work under me and I only tend to see the most serious and severe cases. The major purpose is to allow the younger doctors to get exposed to managing infectious diseases. 

ESTHER: Amazing you must have travelled a lot! What do you do for fun? 

Dr Yonga: I work from Monday to Friday but over the weekend, I plan and create time to go swimming or walking in Karura Forest.

ESTHER: What role has your family played in supporting you to pursue your medical career?

Dr Yonga: Wow, my family has been amazing. They have been my biggest support system. When I mentioned to my dad that I wanted to pursue medicine, that is when he pulled all the strings to ensure that I improved on my grades. He even ensured that I had extra tutors. When I struck on the idea of pursuing my postgraduate outside the country, they were really supportive of the idea.

ESTHER: That’s amazing. So what have you achieved during your medical career?

Dr Yonga: Within the 8 years of my practise, I have been fortunate enough to receive several awards. In 2012, I received an award in Berlin. I went ahead and received The UNESCO Merck Africa Research Summit award in Emerging Infectious Diseases in Geneva for work done in HIV. Afterwards, in 2018 I also received The Bell Chapman Medal in Geriatrich Medicine from College of Physician in Edinburgh. Last year, in 2019, I received The Guaran International Investigator Award from the Infectious Diseases Society of America for work in infectious diseases research in Sub-Saharan Africa. Oh and yeah, I also received The Violet Williams Scholarship from the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers, they actually paid for my training in South Africa another award.

ESTHER: Congratulations for the awards. What is the experience you have had working with sick people?

Dr Yonga: It is not interesting at all. I was still in Uganda in a hospital in a place called Masaka, when this lady walked in. She appeared pale since she had bled out through the nose for a whole week. On further examination, we found out that she was HIV positive asn was so immunosuppressed and by the time she was coming in, she was in heart failure. It was so heartbreaking since she did not make it to the next morning. That was one of the reasons for me to pursue infectious diseases.

Over the course of my career, I have met way more sicker patients especially at this Coronavirus pandemic, in treating and managing severely-ill patients. 

In as much as my encounter with sick patients may be demoralising, the best I can do is to improve their conditions. I walk around trying to think how we can improve the quality of life of these patients. We also tend to consult in medicine, so a good group of colleagues is also important to have around. 

ESTHER: What really excited you about medicine in general?

Dr Yonga: In general medicine, the main benefit is making an impact in someone’s life. When a sickly patient walks in, as a doctor, you will do everything you can to make them get better than they came in and improve their lives as much as you can. For infectious diseases, the good thing is that after you have made the correct diagnosis as a doctor and you are fully aware of the correct targeted therapies , that is way much better than the money you can work from delivering such a professional service. My main inspiration is having a [patient come in and leave better in their health status. 

ESTHER: That is great. And do you keep yourself updated with the current medical trends?

Dr Yonga: Yes, definitely. I think I spend a lot of money either travelling to gain more skills or attend conferences and it leaves me broke. Travelling a lot also leaves me unavailable to my patients when they book appointments. I may not be fully updated but I try my best to be at the cutting edge of medical information and technology as long as infectious diseases are concerned. 

ESTHER: What do you see as the major challenges in the Kenya Healthcare System, today?

Dr Yonga: Number one, I think is the biggest issue of human resource management. Two, is corruption. The government has increased funding to the healthcare system but unfortunately the funds do not reach the necessary services. 

ESTHER: How do you think these challenges should be addressed?

Dr Yonga: I think the challenge of human resource management should be addressed by decentralising medical services. County governments can ensure that hospitals are well equipped with drugs and other essentials, libraries or resource centres for the doctors , tarinning, promotion and salary increment. 

ESTHER: What is the vision of healthcare in Kenya?

Dr Yonga: For me I’d say that the major vision of healthcare in Kenya is affordable healthcare for all and high quality medical services regardless of social classes.

ESTHER: What is the vision of healthcare in East Africa?

Dr Yonga: I think Kenya is leading in terms of  delivering quality healthcare. However, Rwanda is catching up very fast. It all goes down on how trained and motivated healthcare providers are. East African governments also needs to invest in quality training for the HCPs

Secondly, we also need to cultivate a lot of medical tourism. Although Kenya is embracing medical tourism, there is a lot of potential to be unleashed. 

Written by Esther Mugo

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