To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and profiling personalities who have shaped the history of this country. Today, JOEL OGWANG profiles East Africa’s first arbovirologist
IT was always Prof. George Kirya’s childhood dream to become a doctor. From that time he vowed to study medicine when he grew up.
“I once fell sick and was injected. When I went back home I would pick a needle and inject banana stems imitating the doctor,” he recalls.
While filling forms for university admission, his mother, Miriam Najjemba (RIP), a teacher, reminded Kirya of his childhood dream. She influenced him into applying for medicine and was admitted at Makerere University medical school.
Indeed, Kirya has lived his childhood dream publishing over 30 science papers in national, regional and international peer journals. But that is not all. Wherever he has been, he has left an indelible mark.
Kirya has made landmark contributions that have won him rave reviews as a distinguished servant in Uganda’s fields of education, internal medicine, medical research and supervision.
Dr. Sam Zaramba, former director general of health services at the health ministry, credits Kirya as being Uganda’s pioneer arbovirologist (a field related to the study of insects).
“When Kirya chaired the Health Service Commission he worked hard to bring discipline to the health sector. He provided leadership to the profession and trained several medical students,” he says.
Kirya’s career As an intern at Makerere medical school, Kirya, alongside Prof. Charles Olwenyi, spearheaded the formation of the Mulago Interns Association in 1967.
The forum unites interns to date. From research officer he became principal medical research officer, and head of arbovirology at the East African Virus Research
Institute now Uganda Virus Research Institute in Entebbe. In 1970, Kirya went on to become a consultant on yellow fever for the World Health Organisation. He was also the first Ugandan head of microbiology at Makerere after a stint as an honorary lecturer at the department of micro-biology from 1970-73.
From 1973 to 1975 he was senior lecturer at Makerere’s faculty of medicine. Kirya spearheaded diagnosis of viral conditions, taught microbiology, surveillance and research at post-graduate level.
He also served as head of department of Makerere University medical microbiology from 1978 to 1990 and Makerere University vice chancellor from 1986 to 1990. From 1997 to 2003, Kirya served as Uganda’s ambassador to Ireland.
Kirya went on to become the first African dean of the diplomatic corps at the UK Court of St. James from 1998 to 2003.
For his service as a diplomat, the senate of the University of Birmingham awarded him an honorary doctorate of laws degree in 2001.
“I was surprised when I was awarded the doctorate. In fact, some lawyers still ask me how I got the doctorate when I have never been a lawyer,” he says. On returning to Uganda, he served as a member of the Health Service Commission from 2003 to 2007.
Kirya also worked as Chancellor of the defunct Lugazi University from 2007 to 2010, treasurer and later President of the Uganda Medical Association.
In 2005 he became founder member of the Uganda Health Marketing Group. At a time when credentials of some
medics have come under scrutiny, Kirya, alongside Dr. Sam Zaramba, Prof. Olwenyi among others, spearheaded the formation of Advocates for Professionalism and Quality in Health a health. “We have to adjust how we recruit students into medical school.
Rather than recruit on merit we also need right attitudes and interviews so that a person does not become a doctor simply to earn a salary,” Kirya explains. Since 2005- to-date, Kirya hosts the weekly Health Zone, an educative health series featuring on WBS televsion every Monday.
“I don’t get anything from hosting the programme. I feel it is a contribution to humanity and my country,” he says. Criticism
But, for all Kirya’s rosy career, he, like Prof. Francis Omaswa, a former director-general of health services has been accused of failing to train adequate medics, with Uganda choking under a shortage of 2,000 health officers.
Kirya, however, points to poor funding of the health sector saying that it has led to brain drain. “In the past, being a doctor was prestigious, but this is no more because of the poor conditions doctors work in,” he says. Kirya adds that much as people are training health workers, they look for better pay elsewhere.
Born in 1939 at Ngora Hospital to the late Joshua and Miriam Najjemba.
Kirya is the first born in a family of seven.
1959- 1961 attended Busoga College, Mwiri and Mbale Secondary School for O’ and A’ levels respectively.
1966 graduates with a bachelor of surgery at the University of East Africa.
1971 obtains a masters of science degree from Birmingham University
1975 awarded a diploma in bacteriology from Manchester University in the UK. TO DATE
Chairperson Uganda National Health Consumers Organisation
Chairperson Medical and Research Foundation -Uganda advisory Council Technical committee.
Chairperson Uganda Health Marketing Group.
Commonwealth Peoples’ Association of Uganda chairperson
Patron Action Group for Health, Human Resource and HIV/AIDS AWARDS
2001 awarded the Uganda Medical Association order or merit.
2002 received the Trumpet’s Gathering of Africa’s Best, UK, Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contribution to positive image of Africa.
2011 gets the Mwiri Old Boys Association Mpala Golden Award.
2006 the Inter-University Council for East Africa - Award for dedicated service.