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WHILE AT CAMBODIA’S National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STDs in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, Vonthanak Saphonn (PhD ’03, MS ’04) played a key role in one of the most comprehensive and successful efforts to ﬁght HIV/ AIDS in Asia, as head of the country’s HIV surveillance program. But Saphonn’s proudest career achievement is one that is ongoing — the education of the next generation of Cambodian health professionals.
Saphonn earned his medical degree in 1995, but decided that to make the kind of impact that was needed in Cambodia — a low-income country devastated by an extended period of genocide and civil war — treating individual patients wasn’t enough. By 1995, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Cambodia was among the worst in Southeast Asia, with 23,000 new infections that year alone. In a country already facing multiple public health challenges associated with poverty and the war’s aftermath, there was also a shortage of trained public health professionals, with Cambodia’s educational infrastructure having been decimated by the years of violence. Saphonn was instrumental in the aggressive response that changed the epidemic’s course; by 2015, there would be fewer than 1,000 new infections in Cambodia. “The data that my team produced and analyzed about new and existing cases of HIV were trusted and used by policymakers to plan and develop strategies for combating the HIV epidemic,” he says.
In the process, Saphonn enrolled in the FSPH-based UCLA/Fogarty AIDS International Training and Research Program, becoming the ﬁrst Cambodian to graduate with a PhD in epidemiology. “My education through the UCLA/Fogarty program equipped me with leadership, critical-thinking, and team-based problem-solving skills, while preparing me to be ready to meet any future public health challenges,” Saphonn says. “It also motivated me to bring public health education and research to Cambodia.” In 2007, Saphonn became founding head of the School of Public Health at Cambodia’s National Institute of Public Health (NIPH), the country’s ﬁrst government-run public health school. Saphonn now serves as rector of the University of Health Sciences (UHS), the only state-owned health sciences university in Cambodia, and is leading an initiative to reform health professional education at the institution. One of the main goals, he says, is to “change the mindset” of health care professionals so that they are more focused on delivering patient-centered care.
In the last decade, the School of Public Health at NIPH has produced more than 150 MPH and MS graduates as it rebuilds Cambodia’s public health workforce. With Saphonn serving as rector of UHS, NIPH’s public health school is now headed by another FSPH graduate, Chhorvann Chhea (PhD ’09). Saphonn also serves as co-director of the UCLA/Cambodia Fogarty HIV/ AIDS Program, which educates public health professionals both at the Fielding School and in Cambodia (see page 24). “We have a great need for quality professionals who will be prepared for future public health challenges,” Saphonn says. “It is important to me to help nurture, inspire and provide opportunities for future generations of Cambodians to get the type of education I received from the Fielding School.”