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In Ukraine, Olga Pavlova helps transform TB treatment

July 7, 2020 by Kelly Huffman

In a country where tuberculosis is endemic, this doctor-turned-public health-manager has made it her mission to eradicate the disease.

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Olga Pavlova knew from an early age that she wanted to be a doctor. Today, she is PATH's deputy director for Support TB Control Efforts in Ukraine, a project that aims to curb the country's epidemic. Photo: Kateryna Pavlova.

This story is part of our ongoing "People of PATH" series, in which we highlight a team member who’s moving humanity forward.

As a young girl in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, Olga Pavlova watched as her mother—a nurse with big responsibilities in a small clinic—treated a steady stream of patients. Young people came to Nurse Svetlana for more than meds and triage. In a system with very few doctors, they sought out counseling and support from a professional who had earned their trust.

Inspired by her mom’s caring example, Olga said to herself, “I want to be like her—or maybe even do more.”

She went on to medical school, where she found further inspiration in Odessa State Medical University’s tuberculosis department: dedicated, passionate professors who loved their jobs and their patients. Olga knew almost nothing about TB then, but she was convinced that those teachers would help her to become a good doctor.

With her family cheering her decision to specialize in TB—an unusual response in a time when the disease was widely stigmatized—Olga’s course was set.

A comprehensive approach to curbing an epidemic

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From her office in Kyiv, PATH's Olga Pavlova connects with clients and colleagues all over Ukraine. Photo: Kateryna Pavlova.

Her work was cut out for her. With TB cases spiking, Ukraine declared the lung disease an epidemic in 1995. Even after the demise of the Soviet Union, its approach to TB treatment still held sway. Most patients faced mandatory confinement in hospitals and under-funded facilities. Separated from family and friends, unable to work, they spent up to six months in debilitating isolation.

Olga first encountered PATH in 2008, and with it a comprehensive new road map for tackling TB. She joined a team of doctors, infectious disease specialists, psychologists, and narcology experts to deliver a set of patient-centered, wraparound services. Together, they created and implemented a new people-oriented approach to TB case management.

“PATH changed my life, it changed my vision,” says Olga, who is now PATH’s deputy director for Support TB Control Efforts in Ukraine, a USAID-funded project that aims to reduce the epidemic. “But it’s not just about me," she says. "It’s about TB patients becoming healthy. When I was seeing patients as a doctor, I could only help a few. Now I can help many more.” The Support TB Control Efforts in Ukraine project operates in 12 of Ukraine’s 25 regions, touching more than half of the TB patients in the country.

Where people used to wait a month to receive a TB diagnosis, now the news generally arrives within a week of their initial doctor visit. Treatment can begin at home if patients prefer; mandatory long-term hospitalization is a relic of the Soviet past. With the new treatments supported by PATH, people with drug-resistant TB can be treated in half the time with fewer side effects than just a few years ago. Future treatments may reduce these even further.

Digital health delivers support during lockdown

In 2017, PATH was the first organization in Ukraine to implement digital health for TB patients. With the arrival of new video conferencing equipment this January, Olga and her team piloted video visits and trained colleagues on the technology. During the COVID-19 lockdown, video visits have become a vital tool for providing care and support to people living with TB.

Despite the pandemic and concerns about setbacks in the fight to control TB, Olga remains focused and hopeful. Her goal: eliminate the disease in Ukraine over the next five to six years. “We are bringing new algorithms, new technologies, new diagnostic methods, and new treatments,” she says of her team’s work. “For both children and adults, there’s new hope of ending TB in Ukraine.”

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