Working closely with medically complex preterm infants and experiencing first-hand the stress and trauma their new parents go through changed Rehana Salam’s career trajectory. From the early start of leading nursing care at the Aga Khan University Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in Karachi, she has come a long way, becoming an accomplished public health researcher, a task force member for the World Health Organization (WHO), an innovation facilitator and a mentor for women and child health researchers.
“There was always a piece of me that was passionate about research in the public health domain,” says Rehana, who graduated from the Aga Khan University (AKU) in Pakistan with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BScN) in 2006. “But it wasn’t until I was working in the NICU that I began to get a sense of the myriad possibilities ahead of me. With a background in nursing sciences and an inclination towards gaining a better perspective of the state of health among populations, I chose to pursue a master’s in epidemiology and biostatistics.”
And there was no looking back. Most recently, Rehana was invited to be a technical expert on WHO’s Guideline Development Group that worked out a renewed policy on intestinal worm treatment for pregnant women; an intervention that, if not carried out after the first trimester, might lead to blood loss and adverse pregnancy outcomes including low birth weight, preterm birth or perinatal mortality.
“Evidence suggests that deworming, especially among expectant mothers living in areas where these infections are common and widespread, is one of the effective means of controlling maternal deaths. However, this needs to be addressed alongside factors like improvement in water, sanitation and hygiene practices.”
“In Pakistan, improvements in the quality of care for mothers and infants at the community level need practical interventions that are not merely cost-effective, but are also acceptable to communities and their cultural practices,” she shares.
For the past eight years, Rehana has been actively involved in studying major causes of maternal and child mortality, and the effectiveness of various interventions to prevent undernutrition and infections, which are priority areas under the UN sustainable development goals. Her work also involves evaluating country-level initiatives for improving maternal and child health in the region and assessing areas where further research is needed and where evidence is sufficient to develop policy that can potentially change the lives of many communities.
Evidence synthesis is a niche area of study and there are only a handful of people in this region with the skills. As an innovation facilitator who wants to create a ripple effect, Salam has designed, introduced and delivered courses for multidisciplinary healthcare professionals – including many nurses in Pakistan and East Africa – on how to combine and analyse evidence and research studies to generate new knowledge in the healthcare space.
Currently, Rehana is a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and an assistant professor at the Aga Khan University’s Department of Paediatrics.