Pavani Kalluri Ram, MD, associate professor and co-director of the MPH degree concentration in epidemiology, joined UB’s Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health in 2005.
An internist by training, she began her career in public health as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2001, and later served as a medical epidemiologist at CDC. During her public health career, she conducted numerous outbreak investigations and participated in the CDC response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as well as the anthrax bioterrorism events of that year.
Ram’s interests include evaluating the benefits of handwashing for preventing disease among particularly vulnerable populations, such as neonates and new mothers, understanding how best to promote the behavior in order to achieve healthy handwashing habits that last a lifetime, and evaluating public health programs that promote hand washing with soap in order to inform judicious use of limited public health funds.
Through her research, Ram aims to advance public health by improving child survival in resource-poor settings. Globally, an estimated seven million young children die every year, with pneumonia and diarrhea as the two leading causes of mortality. The vast majority of these deaths are preventable. Ram said that while the health benefits of hand washing with soap are proven and significant—decreasing the prevalence of pneumonia and diarrhea by up to 50% in low-income settings—only a minority of people wash their hands at times relevant to pathogen transmission.
She is leading a team of doctoral students and research assistants in evaluating UNICEF programs that promote hand washing with soap. Her team is working with the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene team at UNICEF headquarters to develop a monitoring and evaluation toolkit for hand washing promotion programs that will be useful for UNICEF programs in more than 100 countries.
During the study, Ram and her team will guide UNICEF teams in Kenya and Nepal in evaluating large-scale hand washing promotion programs. The work will fill significant gaps in the understanding of whether or not large-scale hand washing promotion programs succeed in changing the behavior of individuals, and whether this change in behavior is sufficient to improve health in low- and middle-income countries.
In another study, Ram and her team will be evaluating the acceptability and use of waterless hand sanitizer in humanitarian emergency settings. In the early days of a humanitarian emergency or arrival into a refugee settlement, water supplies can be scarce, making handwashing difficult. An option such as alcohol-based sanitizer, which does not require water, could facilitate keeping hands clean and, thus, preventing disease in particularly crowded conditions. This project is funded by CDC.
Ram is an advocate for involving students in all aspects of research, and serves as a faculty mentor to master’s and doctoral students in epidemiology and in community health and health behavior. Her students learn how to design research studies, collaborate with researchers and organizations throughout the world and implement the studies in low- and middle-income settings.
“Members of my research team work tirelessly in the office and in the field but gain an expanded view of global health, a sense of deep commitment for the public good, and an understanding of practical opportunities to reduce the burden of infectious disease in resource-poor settings,” she said. “A mentor cannot ask for more.”