Sumaira Akbarzada, M.P.H. ’21, understands the fear and uncertainty refugees feel fleeing their homeland. When her family members fled Afghanistan during a violent civil war in the 1990s, they hid in the back of a truck and lowered their heads to avoid being shot as they crossed the border into Pakistan.
Akbarzada also knows the courage it takes to leave the familiar behind in search of a better life and the overwhelming sense of relief that comes with finding support from others in a strange new land. When her family arrived in the U.S., she remembers fondly the assistance her parents received from the Afghan American community already living here. Not only did other Afghans help Akbarzada learn a new language, they helped her family get settled, attend doctor appointments and complete important immigration paperwork.
“It was definitely the presence of a culturally competent and sensitive community that made the biggest difference in our relocation,” Akbarzada said of her family’s personal journey.
Now, Akbarzada is giving back to the community as a member of the SalivaDirect research lab at the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH).
As a community liaison for SalivaDirect, Akbarzada recently secured funding from The Rockefeller Foundation to provide SalivaDirect COVID-19 testing to hundreds of displaced Afghan evacuees coming to New Haven County in a bold journey to escape the brutal Taliban regime controlling their homeland. The testing is being done in collaboration with IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services), a New Haven-based nonprofit organization.
“Since the start of this pandemic, SalivaDirect has worked to ensure equitable access to testing across communities and in our schools,” said Leah Perkinson, manager of pandemics, health initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation. “The SalivaDirect-IRIS partnership, forged by Sumaira Akbarzada, demonstrates this steadfast commitment, and represents the type of community-based, rather than community-placed, initiatives that The Rockefeller Foundation is proud to support.”
IRIS began offering free COVID-19 tests to the evacuees on Jan. 12, collecting close to 100 saliva samples on the first day. Afghan refugees, undocumented migrants and individuals seeking asylum are eligible for the tests under the New Home, New Haven program. Program leaders hope the testing will make the transition easier for the evacuees, who are being immediately vaccinated upon arrival to a U.S. airport.
“I’m doing everything in my power to make sure all of the information surrounding our testing is available in both Pashto and Dari (the two primary Afghan languages),” Akbarzada said. “We will also have Afghans from the community on site during testing, and Afghan American physicians are assisting as well.”
Even though the evacuees will be vaccinated, it takes several weeks for the vaccination to build up individual COVID-19 immunity. Akbarzada said there is enough funding to test each individual five times, including twice during their first week of arrival. The Yale Pathology Lab will process the program’s saliva samples using SalivaDirect’s innovative testing protocol that is less invasive, less costly and as clinically reliable and sensitive as traditional nasal swab tests.
Akbarzada has always been interested in a career in health care or medicine. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry and cell biology and a master’s degree in health policy and law from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Over the years, she has worked in the pharmaceutical industry, as a political policy advocate and as a researcher helping women from underserved communities who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was the latter position that ultimately steered her into public health.
“Cancer research doesn’t just affect one individual, it affects individuals on an entire community level,” Akbarzada said. “I realized in doing such work that this is the kind of health care I’m passionate about.” During that period in her life, she returned to Afghanistan three times, helping her cousin’s nonprofit organization provide health care services to orphans, widows and other women.
Realizing her passion for global health, Akbarzada applied to multiple public health schools upon her return to the U.S., including Yale, Johns Hopkins, Columbia and Harvard. She was accepted into all of them, but ultimately chose Yale, where she was awarded a $24,000 Horstmann Scholarship to help pay for her education. The scholarship is named after Dorothy Horstmann, Yale’s first female professor of medicine and a central figure in the development of an oral polio vaccine.
“I read a lot about Yale’s programs, faculty and alumni network, and I just fell in love with Yale,” Akbarzada said. “I actually got into the Yale School of Public Health’s Advanced Professional M.P.H. Program, so instead of going for two years, I was able to complete my master’s degree in 11 months. It was very accelerated.”
The professors Akbarzada encountered at YSPH made a profound impression. She specifically mentioned the mentorship and support of Associate Professor Kaveh Koshnood (an expert on humanitarian health) and Associate Professor Mayur Desai (director of the Advanced Professional M.P.H. Program).
“They were some of the most amazing and passionate professors I’ve ever had,” she said. “You could tell their hearts were in it, they had a lot of fieldwork experience and they really cared.”
After graduating from YSPH in May, Akbarzada remained in New Haven and was fortunate to secure a position at SalivaDirect, where she is part of a team lead by YSPH Research Scientist and Principal Investigator Anne Wyllie, Ph.D.
Akbarzada said she was particularly impressed by the fact that SalivaDirect is an open-source protocol, meaning the lab and Yale offer it free to qualified labs in the interest of improving public health rather than seeking to profit from the innovation.
“This amazing test, SalivaDirect, was invented at Yale, and to have the opportunity to work with Dr. Wyllie and her team has just been incredible,” Akbarzada said. “All of this is very close to my heart and I’m so happy to be working with them.”
Others will soon be able to share Akbarzada’s experience. The SalivaDirect Lab recently joined with the Yale School of Public Health’s Office of Public Health Practice in recruiting four students to work in the lab as research, community engagement, communication and data associates as part of the school’s Applied Practice Experience requirement.
In addition to her work with IRIS, Akbarzada spends her time reaching out to school districts across the country about adopting SalivaDirect for COVID-19 monitoring and other respiratory illnesses. She also is working with labs in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Australia and elsewhere around the globe to adopt the SalivaDirect protocol.
Akbarzada’s ultimate dream is to return to Afghanistan to help reduce the country’s extremely high infant and maternal mortality rate. “I feel so privileged to be here at one of the best educational institutions in the world, and I want to use the knowledge that I have gained back in Afghanistan, possibly by working for the Ministry of Health,” she said. “That is my passion.”