In a year of so much loss, we want to take a moment to honor one that has hit close to home with the Sparkman Center team. George Owino, the Kenya-based Study Coordinator of NIMH-funded research on prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV led by Dr. Janet Turan, died in February 2021 after a long and courageous battle with ulcerative colitis and cancer.
George’s life story is truly motivational for those of us working in global research to prevent and treat HIV. George dedicated his career to expanding access and utilization of HIV testing and care services in the Nyanza Region of Kenya, the region of Kenya most affected by the HIV epidemic. His own struggles living with HIV motivated his work. In 1998 George’s employer at the time had him tested for HIV without his knowledge. Shortly after receiving the results, the employer fired him without explaining why. Then followed years of increasing sickness and time spent searching for cures, until finally receiving his diagnosis and starting antiretroviral medications (ARVs) in early 2003. Sadly, George lost a son who had been perinatally infected with HIV before George knew of his status.
Initially working as a peer educator with Migori District Hospital, George described his role as “fishing for people,” saying that “Over 600 people came in for HIV testing and care because they saw me near death and then saw me come back to life.” In 2007, George joined Family AIDS Care and Education Services (FACES), a PEPFAR-funded program, as a Clinical and Community Health Assistant (CCHA), and was quickly promoted to CCHA Coordinator for the FACES Rongo Hub. He was open about his HIV status and shared his story widely. He happily re-married and raised three healthy children.
Over the years, George continued to grow professionally and continued in his role as an open advocate for people in his community to test for HIV, know their status, and enroll in care. He was determined to continue his education, after the time he had lost due to HIV. He obtained a Diploma and then a Higher Diploma in Counseling Psychology, a Diploma in Social Work and Community Development, his bachelor’s degree in Sociology in 2019, and was working on his master’s degree at the time of his passing. He was keen to become involved in HIV research, so after sharing with Dr. Turan his intervention ideas on how to help pregnant women with HIV disclosure, Dr. Turan was delighted to be able to work with him and offer him the job of Study Coordinator for her NIMH-funded R34 study to develop and test a home-based couples intervention for PMTCT and family health in Kenya (the Jamii Bora (Better Family) Study). Subsequently he became the Study Coordinator for the ongoing large-scale Jamii Bora R01 Study targeting the enrollment of over 1000 couples.
Those at UAB who have worked with George over the years—Janet Turan, Anna Helova, Liza Kimbo, and a number of graduated MPH and DrPH students—will miss George greatly. As Dr. Turan says about George Owino, “Truly one of the best human beings I have ever known. I have worked closely with him for the past decade and it is so rare to have such an insightful, caring, motivated, professional, and hard-working colleague. He will be greatly missed by all that loved him including his family, his friends, and our Jamii Bora Study team.” His courage and perseverance are an inspiration for us all.