Meet Botswana’s Dr. Loeto Mazhani – the paediatrician who saved millions of lives

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CEEBRATED medical practitioner Dr. Loeto Mazhani of Botswana has more than 25 years of experience in the Botswana health system.

Dr. Mazhani was born in 1956 in pre-independent Botswana, and started in 1989 as a pediatrician at Nyangabgwe Hospital in Francistown.

It was during those early years that he noticed a rapid rise in children’s deaths due to HIV/AIDS. In the 1990s, at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that wreaked havoc in much of southern Africa, Dr. Mazhani implemented the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) in Botswana and saved millions of lives as a result.

Unparalleled career as a life-saver

Through the course of his sterling, unparalleled career as a life-saver, the much admired doctor practised as a paediatrician in Nyangabwe Hospital and later served as Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health for a period of three years under then Minister of Health Joy Phumaphi.

Following his tenure in government office he threw his weight into establishing the Department of Paediatrics and Adolescent Health, at the University of Botswana (UB). In an interview with the Botswana Gazette publication, one can tell that he did not do his work for the praise poems. In fact, he called his career “serving humanity”.

In 1989, during the plight of the HIV/AIDS scourge, Dr. Mazhani described a rise in children’s deaths that was petrifying.

“So many kids died due to complications that were beyond our control. The mortality rate at the time was terrifying and the worst I had ever encountered. It was as if we were at war,” he expressed.

According to Dr. Mazhani, the innovation that prevented transmission of HIV/AIDS from mother to child was at the time expensive and available only in developed countries.

When the 1999 Thailand publication demonstrated that giving HIV treatment to infected mothers lessened the transmission of the virus from mother to child, the Government of Botswana under the leadership of former President Festus Mogae introduced the national PMTCT program in 1999, a first such program on the African continent.

Dr Mazhani was tasked with designing and ensuring national implementation of this ambitious project, with unparalleled success. He went on to become a founding member of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Botswana and established the Department of Pediatrics and Adolescent Health. He also became the inaugural Chair of the Botswana Pediatric Association.

That marked the birth of the PMTCT in Botswana. Botswana pioneered this program in Africa and saw a staggering decline in the occurrence of transmissions of HIV/AIDS from mother to child.

Greats seldom sing their own praises. People who have known and worked with Dr. Mazhani include Dr. Joel, the Academic Head (Chair) of Department of Paediatrics and Adolescent Health at UB and current President of The Botswana Paediatric Association.

Dr. Mazhani built a School of Medicine ‘from scratch’

“I’ve known Dr. Mazhani since 2008 and when the School of Medicine opened, he was the only employee. He literally built the department from scratch!” Dr. Joel explained. “Today the department is fully staffed and has graduated 7 paediatricians, with 30 still training at different levels.”

Dr. Joel, who got the opportunity to work under the supervision of Dr. Mazhani, spoke highly of him, his work ethic, discipline and ability to teach as well as remain teachable.

Dr. Joel recalled a time that he was on call but happened to be too far to attend a procedure as he was called in at 3 AM; Dr. Mazhani went out of his way and offered to do the procedure on behalf of Dr. Joel. He did not raise any trepidation as to his supervisory position and for him it was always and still remains caring about the patient.

Dr. Mazhani: Illness does not respect time

From the outside looking in, waking up at 2 AM for a patient seems like a challenge but to him, it is the nature of the job. “I’m over 60 years old, but I still receive the calls because of my willingness to serve,” he said.

Mazhani says he has encountered numerous cases that have confirmed that he is indeed living his purpose. He recalls an instance of a case of a premature baby during his time in Nyangabwe hospital.

“The mother was so worried. The baby was about 800 grams. Dr. Brown and I explained the risks to her and that we will do our best to provide the necessary care.” Dr Mazhani narrated.

All the mother wanted was to know whether her child was going to be treated well and recover. To which his colleague Dr. Brown responded, “Only God knows”.

The distraught mother turned to Dr. Mazhani for an understanding of what the phrase meant. “Go itse modimo”, Dr Mazhani told the mother, and consequently, that is the name the mother gave to her baby. Fast forward to a few decades later, Goitsemodimo is a student in UB, whereupon her mother insisted they pay Dr. Mazhani a visit.

These are the kind of full circle moments that have kept him grounded and driven in his pursuit of making significant strides where public healthcare is concerned.

Dr. Mazhani’s giant shoes to fill

Naturally, the nature of his character begs the question of the role his upbringing played in crafting who he is. Dr. Mazhani simply attributes who he has become to education, hard work and effort.

“I’m just from humble beginnings, a village called Mulambakwena. I started my primary there, passed through to Mater Spei, UB and eventually headed to the US, Washington”, he added.

He has also had mentors and fellow colleagues who have positively impacted his journey throughout his career, he says. It goes without saying that he has left giant shoes to fill.

A quick Google search of his name brings about 1,550 results in 0.23 seconds while ResearchGate lists 56 research articles under his name, all focusing on medical faculty of children at birth and adolescence.

Dr Mazhani said that true leadership builds strong institutions that survive long after the men at helm exit. He is confident that the department he was instrumental in building from the ground up at the School of Medicine (UB), will continue to thrive in his absence.

“I am just retired, not tired” – Dr Mazhani

Dr. Joel echoed the same sentiments, “Everyone now knows their role because we have had a leader that led by example.” He said. Dr. Mazhani must’ve sensed my nervousness when I asked what was next for him. His response came with a reassuring laugh, “I am just retired, not tired.”

Dr Mazhani was in 2019 looking into opening a Paediatric Cancer Treatment Centre so that Botswana won’t need to keep incurring the costs of sending cancer related cases to neighbouring countries. (We have been unable to check if the plans have materialised at the time of publishing).

Even after his retirement, Dr. Mazhani insists the mind must be kept busy. While he might have hung his boots in the public health sector, it appears Botswana still stands to benefit from his brilliance.

Dr. Mazhani named the “Father of PMTCT”

In a previous statement (download it here), the US Embassy in Gaborone named Dr. Mazhani as the “Father of PMTCT” who must be credited for founding the programme which saved many lives in Botswana.

“The Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) program is the flagship program of Botswana’s journey against HIV. Tens of thousands of babies have been born HIV-free in Botswana, and the rate of transmission has dropped from 30-40% in 1999 to about 0.6% in the last year,” read a statement by the Embassy.

“Much of the success of PMTCT is due to the founding father of the program: Dr. Loeto Mazhani, a legend who has devoted his entire career to saving children’s lives.

Dad was always available – Dr. Mazhani’s daughter

According to one of his children, he would walk kilometres to school and “work hard labour during school holidays to afford a school uniform to replace the torn one he had grown out of”.

“The fact that my Dad progressed to become Botswana’s first Paediatric Cardiologist and be fondly known in my country as ‘The Father of Paediatrics’, is exceptional!” wrote Lebani Tapiwa Mazhani, an accomplished lawyer who is daughter to the legendry pediatrician.

Lebani, a Chevening alumni, was writing a personal tribute to her father on the 2022 Father’s Day.

She continued: “His own dad having been absent, my dad accessed education through the insistence of his uncles at a time where, without that ‘sponsorship’, he certainly would not have stepped foot in a school.

“His professional story has been widely documented, but I would like to take a moment to reflect on the influence that this humble giant has had in my own life and development. Dad has always been staunchly principled, never let us (my brothers and I) think that any success would come easy.”

She said her father was a lover of education who impacted positively onto his three children, who are now all doing very well in their own chosen careers. He also made time for his family despite hectic schedules with his national duty and medical researches.

“Growing up, homework was non-negotiable, and if we didn’t have any, he would give us some! There were books in every room, literally every room. Something to read was never lacking.

“I only truly understood the extent and impact of his work much later in life because at home, he has always just been dad. Yes, we knew he was very busy. But we also always knew he was always available. His consistency, loyalty and the security he provided for mum and us was ever present, even through the years that he was part of Rolling Back Malaria and bringing PMTCT to Botswana.

“Now, as I undertake work that is closely related to the medical field, his insight is invaluable. I chat with him for long hours, and get pointers about aspects of childcare that only a seasoned paediatrician would know.

“My biggest wish is that I make him proud. For he and mum have certainly laboured hard to get us where we are (Two lawyers and a medical doctor).”

A towering figure of children’s health care, Dr. Loeto Mazhani in 2019 bid farewell to the world of public health leaving behind an unyielding body of work that makes his peers and patients alike refer to him as an anecdote of sheer dedication, selflessness, and the father of Paediatrics in Botswana.

Dr. Mazhani’s three decades of contribution to the field of paediatrics and the public health system of Botswana as a whole is undeniable and his retirement, inevitable as it may be, was a tremendous loss, according to those who graced his farewell ceremony at the time.


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