Alumni Spotlight: Dunstan Achwoka MS-GH’11

Experiences in a remote Kenyan clinic sparked Achwoka's desire to help shape HIV policy in his home country.

Duntan Achwoka

Dunstan Achwoka at World AIDS Day in 2022, where he represented USAID's HIV prevention and treatment efforts in Kenya.

By Joan Kimani

Published April 11, 2024, last updated on April 29, 2024 under Alumni Stories

Before coming to Duke in 2010 to begin the Master of Science in Global Health program, Dunstan Achwoka, M.D., Ph.D., had an experience that opened his eyes to the possibilities of global health.

Achwoka, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery from Moi University in Kenya, took a position at a health center in rural Kajiado, a region inhabited by the migrant Maasai people. Considered too remote, the facility rarely attracted clinicians. Residents had longed for years for more regular clinical service.

Achwoka saw up to 30 patients a day in the clinic and traveled into the remote region twice a week to conduct outreach. A year later, he began working at a clinic focused on HIV care while continuing to do outreach in the Maasai community. The success of the HIV interventions, and the restoration of hope for a largely overlooked community, were extremely gratifying. 

"This was an exciting experience, giving me the purpose to pursue global health," says Achwoka, who is now a deputy team leader for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Kenya, overseeing the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program, which operates in 25 of Kenya’s 47 counties.

I loved the support offered at DGHI, catering to my ambition, where I took classes in different schools and departments.

Dunstan Achwoka MS-GH’11

At DGHI, Achwoka sought to expand his medical training with a deeper knowledge of health policy, hoping to prepare himself for jobs shaping and implementing health programs in his home country. He participated in mock policy briefings through DGHI’s courses and pursued thesis research evaluating the impact of institutional care for orphans in Tanzania and Kenya. His findings, which showed that institutional care provides no benefit over home-based care, have contributed to shaping policy in Kenya, which is on track to eliminate institutional care for children by 2030. 

"I loved the support offered at DGHI, catering to my ambition, where I took classes in different schools and departments,” Achwoka says. “One of the classes I took was in health economics, a course that proved quite challenging. The professor was kind enough to link me up with a Ghanaian student undertaking his Ph.D. in Health Economics, and I ended up getting a distinction in the course.”

After earning his master’s degree in 2011, Achwoka knew he wanted to return to Kenya to help shape health policy in the country. Going home with no job offer was a gamble, but he says the skill set he gained at Duke gave him a competitive edge.

"Mentioning that I went to Duke is always a conversation starter in my social spaces. It also sets the bar high for what is expected of me at work," he says, chuckling.

Through contacts, he found a job as a senior technical officer at FHI 360, where he helped implement a USAID-funded project in the Rift Valley region in Kenya. He has also worked with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Kenya as a public health specialist, supporting patients receiving antiretroviral therapy. In 2021, he completed a Ph.D. in tropical and infectious diseases from the University of Nairobi, and he recently became a lecturer at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), where he teaches global health on a part time basis.

One constant throughout his career has been a focus on HIV, from seeing those first patients after medical school to working on HIV policy today. Along with four colleagues, Achwoka has recently published a book – the History of HIV and AIDS in Kenya, evolution and contemporary issues, documenting the country’s HIV response over four decades and providing thoughts of what it would take to end AIDS as a public health threat in Kenya.

"Our new book is a first on HIV/AIDS response – a story for Kenyans told by Kenyans to the world,” he says.