By Peter Ongalo
Neema Kaseje is the Founder of Surgical Systems Research Group in Kenya, which seeks to rapidly expand access to health services by leveraging youth, technology and community health workers. Since May 2020, the group has helped to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases in Siaya County, by combining digital tools and data science with the work of young people and community health workers to raise awareness about preventative measures.
Dr. Neema Kaseje was picked for her outstanding medical work and contribution on the frontlines in Siaya, Kenya, to curb the COVID-19 pandemic and provide equitable youth opportunities in the region.
Dr. Kaseje, who is also a surgeon at Médecins Sans Frontiéres (MSF) realized that to close the gap in Covid-19 cases, there needed to be adequate training and capacity building for both hospital and community healthcare workers.
Kaseje’s work in Western Kenya includes training community health workers for detecting children who need surgical care. In Turkana, Kenya, she worked on maternal mortality by mobilizing local women leaders. In Siaya, Kenya, Kaseje has been heavily involved in COVID-19 response. This is why the World Economic Forum has highlighted her as one of the six women heading COVID response in the world.
By providing a comprehensive approach, her organization trained 1300 healthcare workers and digitized processes of data collection about cases to inform quicker responses. By leveraging technology, they could digitize processes to get real-time data to help make informed policy decisions and take immediate action to curb the pandemic.
Her organization has built a network of mentorship groups that reach 800 young girls in Siaya to encourage school retention and reduce teenage pregnancies during the pandemic. Kaseje has also co-authored a paper assessing the rural county’s basic COVID-19 preparedness. She is actively involved in the Global Initiative for Children’s Surgery. Recently, Kaseje has headed a hackathon with people under 30 from Africa with the intention of attracting and developing technological solutions to surgical problems. Kaseje has been named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2017, and the NaWuchs Prize by the Swiss Society for Pediatric Surgery.
The pandemic hit youth, particularly young girls, the hardest in Siaya. With school closures, Dr. Kaseje saw a rise in teenage pregnancies. She built a network of leadership and mentorship groups reaching 800 young girls to realize their potential while also providing essential needs like sanitary pads that are difficult to afford.
So far, 99% of the young girls are back at school, and of the 400 she has checked in on, zero pregnancies have been reported. I have had the privilege of sharing her work over the past year, and every time I am in awe of her resilience. As a surgeon, Dr. Kaseje could be living in a comfortable part of the world, but chose to make her impact much more significant.
“It’s hard to make an impact in your comfort zone,” she told Sarah Shakour, from the WEF during her recognition as a young global leader. “Push boundaries with those who need it the most.”
She has recently been appointed the head of the World Health Program in Emergency and Essential Surgical Care, and leads a Wellcome Trust funded COVID-19 health intervention in Siaya, Kenya.
Born in Boston and raised in Geneva, Switzerland and Kisumu, Kenya, she describes herself as always drawn to science.Her dad is also a public health specialist who spent worked extensively in community based health, and this has influenced her work. She was part of the first set of physicians at the first paediatric surgical program in Liberia, run by Doctors Without Borders. She has worked on capacity building for pediatric surgical care in Haiti in partnership with Hopital Universitaire de Mirebalais. She also leads the strategic support for a UBS Optimus funded project that aims to increase access to surgery in rural Nicaragua.
Neema Kaseje earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology in 1999 from Boston University, and her MD from Boston University School of Medicine in 2004. She received a master’s degree in Public Health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in 2008. In 2018, she received a Doctorate in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Kaseje started her medical career as a resident at the Boston Medical Center. She has been a Clinic Fellow at the Harvard Medical School Program in Global Surgery and Social Change in Boston and Haiti.
According to the World Economic Forum, women across the world have made an enormous contribution to the global efforts to tackle COVID-19. Not only do women make up 70% of the world’s health workers and first responders, women in STEM fields have been leading research into the virus, creating trackers and developing vaccines.
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