Born in the United States and educated in Pakistan, Aisha Sethi graduated from the Aga Khan University (AKU) in 1999, after completing its Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery programme. The same year, she travelled to the US as a visiting medical student for two months of electives, and subsequently received a National Institutes of Health dermatology research fellowship from her host university, Yale. “At Yale, I was thrown into an international, high-performance setting, arriving right after my AKU graduation. But AKU had prepared me well and I felt very blessed.”
After completing her research fellowship, Aisha was accepted into the Yale Dermatology Residency Programme. As a resident, she pursued her aspirations to develop a deeper understanding of tropical medicine. Infectious and tropical diseases fascinated Aisha, and since learning early on as an AKU undergraduate that they presented first on the skin, she wanted to use dermatology as an entry point to address these global health challenges.
In late 2005, for her final year of residency elective, Aisha visited East Africa for the first time and saw AKU labs all over Kenya and Tanzania. She was proud of the widespread community health care being provided by her alma mater. But during her few months based at a dermatology training centre in Moshi, Tanzania, she saw just how badly the region needed dermatologists.
In 2007, Aisha started the first dedicated albinism clinic in Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe, as part of a broad effort to improve dermatological care in the region. The rate of albinism in some southern African tribes climbs as high as 1 in 1,500 births – far above the worldwide rate of 1 in 20,000. The clinic provides albinos with sunscreen and other supplies, and offers screening for skin cancer. Its programmes also seek to raise awareness of the condition by teaching locals that people with the condition should not be stigmatised or treated as social outcasts.
“One of the major lessons that I learned from AKU is that you train the community, not the individual. AKU teaches you to respect your patients and their community, and pay attention to culture before intervening with any healthcare intervention, and that is key.”
In more recent years, Aisha has worked in providing care for refugees in Malawi, Pakistan and Jordan. She continues her work to address global health challenges related to infectious and tropical diseases. She is Director of the Dermatology Global Health Program at Yale University’s School of Medicine.
This article is based on an interview of Dr Aisha Sethi that was originally published by the Aga Khan Foundation USA. Read the full interview here.