Dr. Joseph Baruch Baluku from Uganda wins the Joep Lange Award

The abstract

“It was totally unexpected” – Dr. Joseph Baruch Baluku was both excited and shocked when he was awarded the Joep Lange Award at the INTEREST2020 conference earlier this month. The award will cover Joseph’s next year’s INTEREST registration costs and travel costs.

It was Joseph’s second international AIDS conference he had ever attended and the first time he presented at an international conference with a poster and oral abstract. His winning abstract – titled the frequency and yield of cryptococcal antigen screening among newly diagnosed and anti-retroviral therapy experienced HIV patients in rural Uganda – investigated Cryptococcal infection, a fungus which causes cryptococcal Meningitis (CM). CM is a type of meningitis that mainly affects people with weakened immune systems. If not treated, CM can be fatal in a substantial number of people and can have lasting complications even among survivors. In a 1,5-year retrospective study, Joseph investigated the presence of an antigen that predicts CM in two groups of patients: people who are newly diagnosed with HIV with weakened immune systems and those who are already on antiretroviral therapy (ART experienced patients) who exhibit virological failure. His research concludes that guidelines for screening of the antigen in ART experienced individuals are lacking, which leads undiagnosed cryptococcal infection.

Joseph enjoyed the INTEREST2020 conference and was pleased to see so many African colleagues speaking, including some of his previous teachers from Uganda. Joseph was pleasantly surprised with the well-developed IT platform for the conference although he missed the networking opportunities that in-person conferences offer. He thought it was eye-opening to hear about the impact of climate change on health which seems like a distant matter and is yet to be prioritized by health care programs in low-income settings. All in all, Joseph was glad he could attend and participate at the conference with his two presentations. He was proud to showcase the efforts that Mildmay Uganda is making in transforming lives in Uganda to an international audience. Joseph mentions that a conference like INTEREST, which take place on the African continent, provides the unique opportunity to exchange local expertise and evidence to reach local solutions to the HIV epidemic.

An ambitious early career scientist

“I had a difficult childhood,” Joseph explains. Joseph was born in Kasese, a rural district in western Uganda when his mother was internally displaced by the Uganda bush war of 1980 – 1986. He spent the early years of his life with his grandmother because his father had left the country to study journalism and his mother, now a senior lecturer and accountant, had returned to school to pursue a career in education. Joseph’s early years were characterized by recurrent illnesses due to malnutrition and malaria for which the family relied on herbal remedies. “According to my grandmother, I was even pronounced dead at some point at the local health facility. Seeing all of these brilliant and intellectual physicians who were able to diagnose and cure patients inspired me to be like them.” Joseph attended five primary schools and three secondary schools before making it to medical school.

Dr. Joseph obtained his first medical degree (MB ChB) in 2010 at Uganda’s leading medical school – Makerere University College of Health Sciences – and completed a Master of Medicine in 2018 at the same college. With help from his mentors and co-researchers, Joseph published five peer-reviewed articles from his master’s dissertation. It comes as no surprise that he received the overall best performing postgraduate student award in the department of internal medicine of his college in 2018. Following these achievements, Joseph became affiliated with multiple institutions; he lectures at the Islamic University in Uganda, he is a physician at the National Tuberculosis center – Mulago National Referral Hospital– he is an infectious disease physician at an urban HIV care organization –Mildmay Uganda Hospital–and is an associate research fellow with Makerere University Lung Institute. By combining his work as a physician at a public hospital with his work as a researcher, Joseph aims to achieve broader impact: from the individual patient level to the populational level. “Working in a public hospital in Uganda, you are constantly exposed to social inequality; you encounter the very sick, the poorest and most socially marginalized people who cannot go to private institutions. Every day, I am reminded that I’m part of those people, they are my sisters, uncles and children.” Joseph does not plan to leave Uganda because he hopes to be involved in providing local data and evidence to advance HIV/TB in low-income settings; “it’s the only way of tailoring local solutions.”

Winning this award means a lot to Joseph and his family. “You will know how it feels when your son excels,” his father says. Joseph is honored: “the Joep Lange Award is a major boost for me, as I wish to pursue my research career as a doctoral student, looking into HIV and TB co-infections.” Eventually, Joseph hopes to become a professor of medicine. We congratulate Joseph with the well-deserved Joep Lange Award for top-rated abstract at the INTEREST conference and wish him the best of luck in finding a PhD placement in the future!