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Maths student deployed in DRC to help in fight against Ebola outbreak
Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson
Published: 19/06/2019

​David Niyukuri, a PhD student in Mathematics from Stellenbosch University, was part of a team of epidemiologists who assisted the World Health Organisation (WHO) during May 2019 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help guide its response to the ongoing Ebola outbreak.

Since the start of the outbreak in August 2018, an estimated 2020 people have been infected with Ebola in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces. Of those, 1 354 have been confirmed dead. Of particular concern, however, was the complexity of tackling an Ebola outbreak amid conflict in the region.

David is a member of the Infection Control Africa Network (ICAN), which is affiliated with the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN). In times of emergency, the WHO calls upon this network to deploy volunteers with the right technical expertise and skills on the ground where and when they are needed the most.

He was part of a team whose role it was to help guide response activities based on data from the field. This includes alerts of cases reported during surveillance, a contacts line list, and the incidence of validated cases of viral hemorrhagic fever (VHF), which includes information about the individuals, demographics, clinical signs and information on risk factors.

They performed various analytical techniques, such as epidemiological curves, spatial and temporal case analysis, transmission chains, type of transmission, risk areas, and univariate and multivariate analysis.

He worked alongside specialists from international institutions such as the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, and WHO's Regional Office for Africa.

Under normal circumstances David is an NRF-TWAS doctoral fellow in SU's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (SACEMA), hosted at Stellenbosch University (SU). The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) is the world's largest South-South doctoral and post-doctoral research fellowship programme and is supported by UNESCO.

While this was the first time for him to be deployed in the field, he says he would encourage students, especially those in epidemiology, to make us of the opportunity: “The field of epidemiology in real life is different to what I expected. It is the human dimension in the field that makes interventions more complex than in theory."

He says there were internal security measures to keep all staff safe, and that his short-term deployment did not impede his studies: “Overall it was a great experience for an aspiring epidemiologist!" he concludes.

David grew up in Burundi in East Africa and matriculated from Lycee Sainte Famille de Kinama in Bujumbura. After completing a degree in Mathematics at the University of Burundi, he became a teaching-assistant in the department of Mathematics before joining the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in South Africa. He returned to the University of Burundi as an assistant-lecturer in July 2015. In 2016 he was awarded an NRF-TWAS African Renaissance Doctoral Fellowship and is currently completing his PhD under the supervision of Prof Wim Delva at the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (SACEMA), based at Stellenbosch University. His research focuses on developing new methodologies for HIV prevention studies based on understanding HIV transmission dynamics using bio-behavioural data and phylodynamics. He is a member of the Infection Control Africa Network and the Community of Scientists of the Next Einstein Forum. He is also an alumnus of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting of 2018. ​

On the photo, above, David Niyukuri (in the front, middle) was part of a team of epidemiologists and data analysts who assisted the World Health Organisation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to fight against the Ebola outbreak. From the left, Patrick Keating (​​​London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), Amber Dismer (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention), Richy Ngombo (WHO), David Niyukuri (SACEMA), Franck Fortuné Mboussou (WHO-AFRO), Yurie Izawa (WHO-Geneve), Nabil Tabbal (WHO), Anita Shah (WHO) and Bernadette Gergonne (WHO).