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Wits Professor of public health in rural South Africa wins international alumni award

- Wits University

Wits Professor Kathleen Kahn has received the 2020 Alumni Award of Merit from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Kahn is Chief Scientist at the Wits rural campus in Mpumalanga, officially known as the Medical Research Council/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit (Agincourt). She is a Personal Professor in the Health and Population Division in the Wits School of Public Health and leads the Interdisciplinary PhD programme in Public and Population Health.


Professor Kathleen Kahn of Wits Agincourt wins international Alumni Merit Award from Harvard

Kahn holds an MBBCh degree from Wits and a PhD in public health and epidemiology from Umeå University, Sweden, in addition to a Master’s in public health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Established in 1992, the Alumni Award of Merit is the highest honour awarded by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Alumni Association to an alumna/us of this school.

The Alumni Merit Award acknowledges Kahn’s “substantial contributions to population health research and policy translation, equitable community health in rural southern Africa, and public health education”.

“It is an honour to receive the 2020 Alumni Award of Merit from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In making this award, Harvard has recognised the importance of African health and development, the concerns of African populations, and the importance of African-led science. For this, I sincerely thank the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Alumni Association," says Kahn.

Advancing public health in rural South Africa and beyond

Kahn’s research interests include adolescent and young adult health and development, including HIV prevention, non-communicable disease risk, and mental health, as well as a life course approach to health and ageing.

Kahn has spent over 25 years working in rural South Africa and regionally. Since the inception of the Agincourt health and socio-demographic surveillance system in 1992, she has led work on mortality and cause of death measurement, using verbal autopsy to track transitions over a period of dramatic socio-political change and the HIV epidemic.

She partners with communities, public-sector departments, and collaborating investigators to undertake excellent, ethical, and community-sensitive research and elevates rural priorities to policy and decision makers. In this capacity, Kahn has been a senior adviser on issues of rural health and equity, and has investigated and shed light on such divergent problems as HIV prevention, mental health, and metabolic disease, focusing on vulnerable adolescents and how to mitigate risk and foster resilience.

She has highlighted issues that others have overlooked, such as the problem of young children dying before their parents—a global concern magnified in the epidemic period of HIV/AIDS.

Incubating research at Wits' lab in the bush

With an enduring commitment to mentorship and building capacity, Kahn has contributed substantially to building the next generation of African researchers. In 2008, she reformulated and now leads an Interdisciplinary PhD Programme in Public and Population Health, which today boasts over 100 candidates.

Kahn’s efforts to inculcate research capacity and excellence extend into Africa through the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA).

She is acknowledged as among the most accomplished epidemiologists and health scientists in Africa and thus a worthy winner of the Alumni Merit Award.