NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

NIDCR’s Boehm Travels to Africa for CDC Fellowship

Boehm smiles
Karina Boehm

Photo:  Dana Talesnik

Karina Boehm enjoys a good challenge. A lifelong interest in other languages and cultures inspired her to apply for a CDC-led global health training program. Once accepted, she eagerly awaited news of her country assignment.

Fluent in French, Boehm expected to be heading to a French-speaking African nation for the summer. While she did end up in Africa, much to her surprise, she was assigned to one of the world’s poorest countries, Mozambique, where the official language is Portuguese.

Director of NIDCR’s Office of Communications & Health Education, Boehm did her 3-month stint abroad last year as part of the International Experience & Technical Assistance (IETA) program. The program, run by CDC’s Center for Global Health, is primarily for CDC employees but staff at other HHS agencies are also eligible to apply.

“This opportunity put me in my happy place—at the intersection between language, culture, science and health,” said Boehm.

Coming from an immigrant family, Boehm studied language and culture in college before pursuing an M.P.H. in health behavior. Yet despite her affinity for linguistics, the language barrier was a challenge during her time in Mozambique. She took Portuguese language classes when she arrived in Maputo, the capital, and the local staff was eager to help her learn. But she had a hard time understanding what was said during meetings with the Ministry of Health and sometimes struggled with reports written in Portuguese.

“Rather than try to translate every word in my head, I tried to take it all in and see what I could get, and each week I understood a little more,” she said. “It also helped that Mozambican Portuguese is a bit more rolling, slower and more relaxed [than European Portuguese].”   

Another challenge was being apart from her husband and two teenage children. The weeks seemed to fly by at work, but time dragged outside the office. “I think I really underestimated how hard it would be to be away from my family for 3 months,” she said.

Boehm takes a selfie with Marta Mapengo Domingos
Boehm with Mozambique chief dental officer Dr. Marta Mapengo Domingos (c)

Photo:  Karina Boehm

Boehm’s husband is a teacher and had the flexibility to take on family obligations during his summer break while she was away. Her family did get to visit her, at the end of her assignment, just as she finally had gotten acclimated to the country, the CDC Mozambique office and her work.

While in Mozambique, Boehm worked on health communication projects related to HIV/AIDS. She found the work personally gratifying, a fulfilling way to honor her father’s memory.

“My father died of AIDS in the early 1990s,” said Boehm. “So it made me happy to be working with a group that had HIV prevention and treatment as its main goals.”

New HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths have decreased dramatically over the past decade, but the prevalence of HIV remains high in Mozambique at over 10 percent. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has contributed to a reduced life expectancy of 55 years and in 2015 there were approximately 34,000 AIDS deaths and more than half a million children orphaned by AIDS.

Boehm’s assignment was to provide technical assistance to CDC Mozambique’s prevention, maternal and child health and care and treatment branches and to train staff on how to develop effective health communication programs.

“We had some really great conversations about the need to make a conceptual shift from developing informational materials to developing broader community-based social and behavior change initiatives,” said Boehm. “We also talked about the importance of engaging the audience from the start and understanding what they see as barriers to behavior change.”

People lined up on sidewalk alongside vehicles in busy traffic
A typical daily commute in Maputo

Photo:  Karina Boehm

During her stay, she also advocated for oral health, presenting information to local staff about the global burden of oral disease and inviting Mozambique’s chief dental officer to talk about the oral manifestations of HIV.

Boehm also learned that working abroad requires more than just intellect and technical skills.

“In Mozambique, you can’t get anything done unless you’re also culturally and socially adept,” she said. “I also learned the importance of bringing my whole self to the table.” When she shared with colleagues there that her father had died of AIDS, it helped them understand that her interest in the disease was both personal and professional.

Despite the language barrier, Boehm accomplished a great deal in her short time abroad. It was often disheartening seeing the poverty and disparity, but that made the work all the more meaningful, she said. And although some of her pre-trip training included intense security awareness preparation, Boehm was grateful she never needed to shoot a rifle or use the other self-defense tactics she learned; Mozambique, she discovered, is a relatively safe country.

In the end, Boehm had a fulfilling IETA experience. She enjoyed observing how the U.S. government operates abroad and how different agencies work together.

“It gave me a unique perspective on what it means to be a public servant,” she concluded.

The NIH Record

The NIH Record, founded in 1949, is the biweekly newsletter for employees of the National Institutes of Health.

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