When Rajni Gunnala was growing up, her family spent summer vacations in India, her parents’ native country. As a result, young Rajni, who grew up in the U.S., developed an increasing awareness of “the gross social and health disparities in the world, which helped me to nurture a global perspective from early childhood on.”
It’s a perspective, and a commitment, on which she has built her career.
Born in Canada, she grew up in Phoenix. She did her undergraduate work at the UA where, in her senior year, she was introduced to the formal concepts of public health and epidemiology. For her senior honors thesis, she worked with the Pima County Health Department in assessing the efficacy of a needle-exchange program designed to reduce HIV transmission in I.V. drug users in South Tucson.
“I did a survey with the users, about their attitudes and experience. This opened up a whole new world for me,” Dr. Gunnala recalls. “The idea that prevention could improve public health suddenly became clear, and I was torn between the option of getting trained in clinical medicine, which focuses on treating individual patients, or further developing my experience in the field of public health, so I could affect population health.”
She received her bachelor’s degree from the UA in molecular and cellular biology, with a minor in Spanish, in 1999. After that she gained more experience with “real world public health” by working as an AmeriCorps volunteer to improve health care for farm workers in California’s Central Valley.
“I realized then there was only one path that made sense for me – an MD-MPH program, where I could learn both sets of skills, with the hopes of integrating them into a more complete practice.”
In 2006, she graduated from the UA Colleges of Medicine and Public Health, then went to Phoenix Children’s Hospital for her pediatrics residency.
From 2009 to 2012, she worked with the non-profit Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative in Lesotho, Africa.
In July 2012, Dr. Gunnala joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a two-year Epidemiology Intelligence Service (EIS) fellowship. In 2014, she joined the CDC’s polio eradication project in Nigeria.
In the field, supervising staff, she observed local workers “doing the hardest work, convincing and educating the caregivers to allow children to be vaccinated, identifying cases of polio, dealing with vaccine refusals, and traveling long distances to reach underserved communities.
“Many of the rural communities in northern Nigeria, which is where the highest polio risk is, are made up of nomadic populations that are hard to reach, due to their work and lifestyle of traveling from place to place. It is difficult to ensure consistent vaccine coverage from month to month due to the transient nature of such communities,” Dr. Gunnala says. “But with the help of dedicated community health workers and strategies implemented by staff from the national polio eradication program, children are getting vaccinated against polio and we are seeing hopeful improvements.
“I am a pediatrician by training, so for me, it’s incredibly satisfying to see healthy children running around in these towns and villages, knowing that they’re getting covered by preventative services like immunization, and knowing that they can avoid becoming paralyzed. There are many challenges still to be overcome in these communities in terms of addressing public health issues, but seeing these precious young children in their homes, working hard to help take care of the household and family, all the while with smiles on their faces, one can only be inspired to continue to fight against the challenges.”
In August last year, Dr. Gunnala was recruited to the team responsible for collecting data on the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria.
“While I wasn’t providing any direct clinical care, I had the chance to meet and work with many amazing, hard-working people while I was there,” she says.
In February, Dr. Gunnala was the Distinguished Speaker at the Arizona Global Health Conference organized by UA College of Medicine – Tucson students. Sharing video and talking about her experiences in Nigeria gave her a sense of accomplishment, she said afterward.
“When I was taking the MCAT, and as a medical student, I had very idealistic plans and hopes for my career, and I feel I’ve been able to feed all of those plans and hopes through my experiences,” she said. “And I feel that all of my experiences have been in situations where I was able to help even out the distribution of health-care resources.
“That has always been my goal.”
By Jane Erikson