Lara Vojnov, PhD is the Diagnostics Advisor in the HIV and Hepatitis Department at the World Health Organization. She currently leads normative guidance development and country support for HIV and hepatitis diagnostics, including viral load, early infant diagnosis, and laboratory quality and development. Prior to joining the WHO, Dr. Vojnov was both a graduate and undergraduate student at UW-Madison. She also worked for the Clinton Health Access Initiative as a Senior Scientist supporting countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia to increase access to key HIV diagnostics. She has lived in South Africa, Liberia, and Tanzania and is now based in Geneva, Switzerland.
Can you talk a bit about your current position at the World Health Organization?
My role with the WHO is as the Diagnostics Advisor in the HIV, hepatitis, and STI (sexually transmitted infections) department. As such I lead our normative guidance development and country support to increase access to HIV and hepatitis diagnostics, including viral load, infant diagnosis, and laboratory quality and development. Prior to joining the WHO in 2016, Dr. Vojnov worked for the Clinton Health Access Initiative as a Senior Scientist supporting countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia to increase access to key HIV diagnostics. She has lived in South Africa, Liberia, and Tanzania and is now based in Geneva, Switzerland.
What has been the most defining moment of your career thus far?
The most defining moment of my career was likely completing two similar studies in Malawi and Mozambique. These studies looked to understand whether same day testing for infants exposed to HIV provided better and faster diagnosis and treatment linkage than referring their samples to the regional or national laboratory. Not only did both studies show similar results in that same day testing and result delivery was impactful, the data far exceeded our expectations in ensuring that HIV-positive infants quickly went and stayed on treatment. These results will now be used to make WHO recommendations in 2020 and ideally these technologies will be implemented and scaled up across most high burden countries to reduce the high rates of morbidity and mortality that we often see in this incredibly vulnerable population.
How did studying Africa at UW-Madison shape your career goals?
Being a part of the African Studies program completely reaffirmed my desire to not just visit and travel in Africa, but also to spend some significant time there and dedicate my career in public health with a strong focus in infectious diseases affecting the continent. With the array of classes provided, I felt more prepared to do so as I better understood the history, cultures, and social considerations before traveling and engaging fully.
Tell us about a few of your favorite travel experiences (work related, or otherwise) in Africa.
Living and traveling throughout Africa has been incredible and given me the opportunity to see how diverse the continent is. Some of my favourite travel experiences have been: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, wandering around the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, hiking in Gombi National Park and watching the chimps, taking a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls, and spending a night in the Sahara. There are so many amazing and gorgeous places.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in studying Africa?
Do it. It will be challenging at times, life may not always be easy, but it will provide an incredibly rich experience, help you understand yourself and your path better, introduce you to people who are kind and welcoming and hopeful, and provide opportunities that you won’t and can’t experience elsewhere.