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News Maryland Anne Arundel County

New Arundel health officer saw AIDS epidemic up close

Dr. Angela Wakhweya began her medical career in her native Uganda, at the height of the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, where she saw many patients, friends and even some family members succumb to the deadly disease.

The experience propelled her into the public health field, and eventually led her to Maryland, where she worked on infectious disease prevention at the state health department in Baltimore. Maryland ranks fourth in the nation in terms of newly diagnosed HIV/AIDS cases.

Now she's expanding her horizons, and this fall took on a new role, leading the Anne Arundel County Health Department.

In Anne Arundel, she oversees a department of 770 employees and a $50 million annual budget. The county agency offers myriad services to the public, including health care for poor children and HIV and tuberculosis testing, making 1.6 million contacts with the public annually.

In an interview in her Annapolis office, Wakhweya (pronounced "Wok-way-ya") said she's eager to put her stamp on a variety of health and wellness issues, including obesity and diabetes prevention.

Well aware of budget constraints — the county Health Department receives funding from state and the county government in addition to service fees it takes in — Wakhweya hopes to cement public-private partnerships with a variety of groups to achieve her goals.

"That's where we're going to get the biggest bang for our buck — focusing on weight loss prevention," she said, adding that overweight people are more likely to suffer from a variety of ailments. "We cannot do it all alone."

Now 48, she fled Uganda with her family — her mother, a nurse, and her father, an economist — in 1971 during a political turbulent time in the eastern African country. She attended high school in McLean, Va.

She later returned to Uganda, where she earned her medical degree and saw the AIDS epidemic up-close.

"As a medical student I saw my fellow classmates dying," she said. "They received their diplomas posthumously."

As she worked in private practice there in the early 1990s, she said, 80 percent of her patients were infected with HIV.

"In public health you can influence the health of a large number of people, rather than just that one patient," said Wakhweya. "I feel privileged that I was able to work in medicine and help people in need."

Wakhweya also earned a master's degree in economics, with a health policy concentration, jointly from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

She then returned to the United States and did nonprofit work. Until she began at Anne Arundel, she was the deputy director of the Infectious Disease and Environmental Health Administration at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

She has lived in Anne Arundel for the past six years with her husband and three children, who attend county public schools.

County Executive John R. Leopold said Wakhweya's varied background is an asset to the county Health Department. Wakhweya is the first African-American to lead the health department in its 81-year history, he said.

"She comes with a variety of experiences that I think will be helpful in Anne Arundel County," said Leopold, a Republican. "Her work at the state level and her interest in economics are real assets."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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