Alumni Profiles

Chiedza Maponga

From Zimbabwe to Buffalo, pharmaceutical researcher is dedicated to helping those with HIV

Chiedza Maponga

Maponga close-up
UB degree: PharmD ’88; Where born: The city of Masvingo, site of Great Zimbabwe Ruins, an extensive stone ruin of an Iron Age city and source of the word “Zimbabwe,” which means “houses of stone”; Languages: Shona, Ndebele and English; To relax: Watches televised soccer and American football

Chiedza Maponga—Zimbabwe’s first clinical pharmacist—is determined to make a difference. Interviewed in his Cooke Hall lab on UB’s North Campus in February, Maponga will leave in a few days for Harare, capital city of his native Zimbabwe. After a 23-hour flight across the Atlantic and parts of the vast African continent, he will transition abruptly from shoveling snow at his Amherst home to building networks of support and improved HIV pharmacotherapeutics in temperatures approaching 90 degrees.

Maponga is the person most closely associated with a joint initiative of the UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and the University of Zimbabwe to take proved methods of HIV pharmacology and transfer them to developing countries through smart—and sensitive—education and training. Maponga, who holds dual academic appointments at UB and the University of Zimbabwe, points to a section of the Cooke Hall lab where HIV drugs collected in Zimbabwe can be tested for their efficacy. Outside the office of Gene D. Morse, UB professor of pharmacy and Maponga’s longtime mentor and now research collaborator, Maponga proudly shows the collection of Zimbabwean artwork he’s accumulated over the course of many trips to then share with his UB partners.

Maponga’s focus is to build support and understanding for those with HIV, not only in Zimbabwe (where an 18 percent prevalence rate is down from about 30 percent six years ago) but also throughout the developing world. Maponga does this by drawing on the traditions of the very people he is helping, for instance, encouraging the development of the Utano Herbal Garden (“utano” means “health” in Shona, Maponga’s mother tongue) as part of the Chitungwiza Utano Community Partnership located just outside Harare. Here community members facing HIV can meet and discuss health-related self-help projects. “The herbal garden is to help members learn more about the herbs they use and how they possibly interact with the HIV medications that community members receive from hospitals and clinics,” Maponga explains. “People were using herbal medicines but wouldn’t tell their doctors.”

Now through this program, individuals with HIV or AIDS are encouraged to openly grow their herbs, thus fostering more openness and communication with researchers. “Through this openness, the community member can reveal to us what herbs they will be taking and also agree to participate in our ongoing pharmacokinetics studies, which are designed to find out what might be the effect of concurrent administration of herbs with HIV medications. These studies involve collecting blood samples of participants who are taking herbs and HIV medications concurrently, processing those samples, and sending them for analysis at UB.”

With an overall approach intended to empower individuals and foster self-help, Maponga and his colleagues believe they can encourage more people to participate in clinical trials for promising HIV drugs. Indeed, says Maponga, these efforts are the perfect antidote to the paternalism of the past. “Paternalistic approaches create communication barriers between us and our patients. The net result is that they don’t tell us all the information that we need to get from them, but rather they only tell us what they think we want to hear from them.”

At the same time, Maponga tells community members of the support coming from abroad, in particular Western New York and UB. “We show them a map of the United States [and state] ‘These are the people in Buffalo, in this part of the U.S., who are committed to helping you.’” An agreement between the University of Zimbabwe and UB calls for the exchange of faculty and students, and this summer Maponga will welcome a pharmacy student from Zimbabwe.

Maponga’s journey on behalf of AIDS research and improved communication to promote health and healing began with his doctoral studies at UB, and has continued with fellowships, research grants and now an appointment as research assistant professor at UB, while chair of the pharmacy school at the University of Zimbabwe. He also holds a master’s degree in medical education from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Says Morse of his colleague: “Given the challenges that are posed by the global HIV epidemic, Dr. Maponga has emerged as a leading international scientist who has a professional and a personal mission that is focused on facilitating interactions among clinical scientists that will help those with HIV infection who are not only his countrymen, but also the millions of other individuals who are in desperate need of assistance from clinicians and researchers in developed counties.”

To do his work in Zimbabwe, Maponga must leave his family—his wife, Yvonne, and daughter, Leona—for long periods of time. The family is reunited when Maponga returns to Buffalo to continue his UB research. It’s a sacrifice surely, but one that Maponga gladly makes as he crosses the Atlantic, sometimes as frequently as five times a year. “I want to build bridges so that the abundant resources in the West that have basically suppressed HIV can be transferred to other parts of the world affected by HIV,” he says.

“The problems of AIDS in Africa are so immense, and they cut across developing countries. HIV is not one person’s problem—it’s a global problem. Given the movement of people among countries, we haven’t controlled it if it’s not controlled throughout the world.”

Story by Ann Whitcher-Gentzke, with photo by KC Kratt, MFA ’84

Related Reading: Building the UB–Zimbabwe connection