Scientist Profiles

Dr. Paul Yonga

Infectious Disease and HIV Physician at Fountain Health Care Hospital

An infectious and tropical diseases physician and clinical epidemiologist who wants to keep people living with HIV in East and Central African region healthy by identifying diseases they are likely to suffer from and finding ways to diagnose and mitigate them.

When Dr. Paul Yonga was in Standard Two, his uncle was completing his cardiology program and seemed to be living a life of adventure that a young Dr. Yonga could only dream about. The first time he had been to an airport was in seeing his Uncle off, and the excitement of receiving postcards from far away places and visiting him when he was posted to Nairobi Hospital cemented a desire to pursue a medical profession.

His experience in infectious diseases as an epidemiologist has certainly sobered him. He studies HIV co-infections and comorbidities, or diseases that often appear in people who are HIV+. “People used to die of AIDS but thankfully we are not seeing that as much. We are now seeing people ageing with HIV,” he explains, “and ending up on additional drugs as well as the ARVs.” The result of this is a whole host of comorbidities that doctors now need to be aware of.

One of the diseases that Dr. Yonga’s work highlights is anal cancer. His primary concern is that doctors are simply not aware of how high the propensity is for HIV patients to contract anal cancer is. It is one of the most painful and devastating of the cancers, where early detection makes all the difference.

In recent years there has been an increase in testing for the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) as it has a strong relation to cancer of the cervix, but there is no routine screening for anal cancer. In fact, Dr. Yonga is the only researcher in East and Central Africa focusing on it.

The importance of mentoring and ensuring that young doctors are trained in his field, therefore, goes without saying. The screening process for anal cancer is tedious and the learning curve is quite long. Dr. Yonga’s own training occurred in Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada. The lack of equipment and screening in Kenya means that the only way to double check the results of the screenings would be for the patient to travel abroad. This is, of course, often too expensive for most patients. For doctors like Dr. Yonga, it means having to travel to keep up with his practical skills.

Needless to say, the whole process of screening in Kenya is currently not sustainable, and most doctors are not even aware that their HIV positive patients should be screened for anal cancer. The lack of screening has led to too late discoveries. Dr. Yonga’s long term goal is to get a video colposcope (a machine that helps examine the lower genital tract) for the region, which will enable the screening process to become much more attainable. Dr. Yonga has turned his frustration to fuel, “I am working on this very aggressively,” he explains, “I even have sleepless nights.”

Through his networking and social media, he has encountered more young doctors interested in the field and in getting information out to the public. The sharing of knowledge and the continual support he receives from his colleagues both in Kenya and abroad, has Dr. Yonga excited about the future of screening for anal cancer.

Follow Dr. Yonga on Facebook (Paul O Yonga), Twitter (@pauloyonga), Instagram (PaulOYonga), and LinkedIn (Paul O Yonga)

Mawazo Institute