November 13, 2012 |

Kent Campbell: a life in malaria honored

Man wearing gloves pricks a young girl's finger to test for malaria.
Testing for malaria in Zambia, part of efforts to eliminate the disease. Photo: PATH/Laura Newman.

When Kent Campbell went to medical school, a career in public health wasn’t in his plans. But when his number was about to come up in the final draft of doctors during the Vietnam War, his life changed.

Carlos Clinton Campbell III—known to everyone as Kent—was married to the woman he’d loved since childhood, a father of two, and on the brink of fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a pediatrician. Within two weeks of realizing he stood a good chance of being drafted, he found a different way of serving. He interviewed with the US Public Health Service at the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and soon he joined the CDC’s postgraduate Epidemic Intelligence Service program. Kent’s new direction would root him firmly in the field of public health epidemiology and eventually establish him as a leading mind on one of the most challenging public health problems: malaria.

Earlier this week, the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene recognized Kent, a past president of the society, with its Joseph Augustin LePrince medal for his lifetime achievements in malaria. Now the director of PATH’s Malaria Control Program, Kent developed the Malaria Control and Evaluation Partnership in Africa (MACEPA), a program at PATH that has played a pivotal role in supporting African nations in scaling up malaria control efforts and drastically reducing malaria illness and death.

Malaria’s misery and elegance

Kent first became captivated by malaria while working at a CDC research station in El Salvador, where part of his job was to staff a remote clinic in an area where malaria was rampant. “I got a vivid immersion in the toll that malaria extracts on a community,” he recalls, “and especially on children.” But he also saw “the beauty and the elegance of the malaria parasite transmission cycle,” and the complexity that controlling malaria would require.

After completing his medical residency at Harvard University, Kent rejoined the CDC and was soon appointed chief of the malaria program. He shifted the program’s focus to Africa, where 90 percent of the world’s malaria deaths occur. At that time, there was no model for addressing the disease in Africa, nor any resources to make it happen. Kent and his colleagues began building a body of evidence on how insecticide-treated bednets, preventive drugs, indoor residual spraying, and other interventions could prevent and control malaria.

Malaria on the map

In 2003, Kent began working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to get these interventions into the hands of national governments with the goal of showing how countries could implement their own control efforts. He started in Zambia, and in just three years his small team witnessed dramatic results: 29 percent fewer children younger than age five died of malaria.

As Kent’s program became MACEPA and found a home at PATH, the Roll Back Malaria Partnership and other groups ramped up support for African countries’ malaria fights. Seemingly overnight, the disease achieved international notice.

Hard work ahead

In the last decade, Kent’s leadership has paved the way for new, lifesaving approaches to malaria, and his mentorship to dozens of scientists has helped build strong leaders in the field. Kent’s passion for medicine has also deeply influenced his son and daughter, both of whom are pediatricians.

Kent and his colleagues are now working with African nations to develop strategies for eliminating malaria transmission across Africa and to sustain international support for ending malaria illness and death.

“Malaria transmission is still going on out there, and the minute we stop doing bednets it’s going to come back,” Kent explains. “The hard work is very much ahead of us.” Portrait of Kent Campbell.

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