From Pakistan to New York City: Alumna strives to improve vaccination programs
Umaima Abbasi, BA ’20
Community and Global Public Health
Umaima Abbasi, BA ’20, has encountered many reasons to care about addressing vaccine-preventable diseases.
She grew up in Pakistan, where few immunizations were available and several infectious diseases ran rampant in her area, including malaria, dengue and polio. And in 2020, she lost her mom to the COVID-19 pandemic before vaccines were widely distributed.
It might not be surprising that Abbasi now wants to focus her career on improving this public health issue. She has worked for the New York City Department of Health since 2020, largely in the Bureau of Immunization, where she has helped manage programs that focus on diseases such as COVID-19, mpox and influenza. And she’s currently applying to doctorate programs so she can deepen her work and expertise and return to Pakistan to improve the public health issues she saw while growing up.
It wasn’t a straightforward path, however, that led her to the University of Michigan School of Public Health or her current career.
“I didn’t even know that public health was a field that I could study or work in when I was witnessing the toll of vaccine-preventable diseases in Pakistan,” said Abbasi, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in Community and Global Public Health from the School of Public Health. “I saw the impact that community health workers could have, but I didn’t have the language or knowledge to understand that I was seeing public health concepts in action.”
She immigrated with her family to the United States in 2014, settling in Michigan. After finishing high school, she enrolled in a Michigan community college so she could fulfill academic requirements and take classes that weren’t available to her in Pakistan while she was growing up.
I didn’t even know that public health was a field that I could study or work in when I was witnessing the toll of vaccine-preventable diseases in Pakistan. I saw the impact that community health workers could have, but I didn’t have the language or knowledge to understand that I was seeing public health concepts in action.”
Abbasi thought she might work in social services after graduation, but she took a sociology class that introduced the field of public health to her. Abbasi was immediately interested because she recognized the overlap with the issues she had been exposed to during her upbringing in Pakistan as well as with work she had done as a volunteer for an organization that helps trans women who face a high risk of HIV.
She finished her associate degree in liberal arts at Oakland Community College and applied to the University of Michigan-Dearborn because she knew it offered a number of public health courses.
While Abbasi was there, Michigan Public Health announced the launch of its Bachelor of Arts degree in Community and Global Public Health. She applied to transfer and was accepted into the program. By the time Abbasi enrolled in her first classes in Ann Arbor, she already had a solid introduction to the academic side of public health and felt confident about her decision to go into the field.
“I’d learned about things like preventable diseases, racism as a public health issue and social determinants of health,” Abbasi said. “I was excited to join a high-caliber institution to continue my education and pursue the exciting research opportunities available at the School of Public Health.”
During her junior year, she applied for an internship at the New York City Health Department, where she worked on a measles outbreak that hit the city during the summer of 2019. She loved working for one of the largest health departments in the country and helping urban populations address urgent health issues from the community level. She also enjoyed how that experience positioned her to understand academic concepts through a different lens.
“I’d learned about things like preventable diseases, racism as a public health issue and social determinants of health. I was excited to join a high-caliber institution to continue my education and pursue the exciting research opportunities available at the School of Public Health.”
When Abbasi graduated from the University of Michigan a year later, she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her degree.
“I really valued the work I did during my internship, and it solidified my desire to gain more of that community-based work experience in public health,” she said.
Unfortunately, Abbasi graduated in the thick of the pandemic and there was a widespread hiring freeze across New York City agencies. However, she eventually landed a fellowship funded through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program with the Bureau of HIV and helped administer one of the largest HIV testing and prevention programs in the country.
She has remained with the New York City Health Department since then, where she’s now a full-time employee in the Bureau of Health Clinics, which oversees eight sexual health clinics that offer free reproductive health services.
Abbasi also worked as a community outreach specialist for the Bureau of Immunization, where she focused on helping communities with low vaccination rates. Some of her specific projects included launching the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and targeting low flu vaccination rates in underserved areas of New York. She has helped increase access to vaccines through initiatives such as vaccine popups at convenient neighborhood locations and free vaccines for undocumented populations and immigrants.
Her work experience has only deepened her interest in addressing vaccine-preventable diseases from the community level and Abbasi is now applying to doctorate programs, where she plans to focus her research on developing a vaccine program for polio.
Abbasi hopes to eventually share her knowledge and insights through publications and teaching positions. She also would like to return to where the public health seed was first planted—and put her education to work.
“A huge goal is to go back to Pakistan,” she said, “and create a sustainable intervention for polio that’s led by the community.”