March 30, 2022

New Clinician Spotlight: Rebecca (Ribka) Berhanu

Rebecca Berhanu, MD, assistant professor of Medicine, has joined Vanderbilt’s Division of Infectious Diseases as a clinician and researcher.

Rebecca (Ribka) Berhanu, MD
Rebecca (Ribka) Berhanu, MD

Rebecca Berhanu, MD, assistant professor of Medicine, has joined Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Division of Infectious Diseases as a clinician and researcher.

Her research, supported by an NIH K08 award, is focused on improving the diagnosis and treatment of tuberculosis (TB) in high-burden countries. She is studying the social networks and molecular epidemiology of drug-resistant TB transmission in two South African communities. Berhanu will be based in Johannesburg, South Africa, for nine months of the year and for the remaining three months will work as a clinician on the infectious diseases service at VUMC.

Prior to joining VUMC, she was the clinical manager of a specialized drug-resistant TB treatment unit at Helen Joseph Hospital, a public teaching hospital in Johannesburg, where she continues to see patients on the infectious disease consult service. She has collaborated extensively with researchers from the University of Witwatersrand, examining new diagnostics in TB and drug-resistant TB treatment outcomes.

“Before COVID, TB was the No. 1 cause of death in South Africa,” Berhanu said, adding that the high rates have been worsened by one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world.

“I have found TB to be a fascinating illness, and it’s been very fulfilling to participate in improving the diagnosis and treatment for this disease that has been neglected for so long. I’ve had really good mentors along the way who have helped me develop my research interests in the area,” she said.

“TB seems like an obscure disease when you live in America, yet before COVID, even globally, it was the single most common cause of death (worldwide) from any one infection,” she said. “But it’s neglected to a large extent because it’s a disease of poverty and a disease of poorer countries, so there’s not nearly as much investment and attention paid to it as many other diseases.”

Berhanu said that access to molecular diagnostics and new drugs in the past decade have resulted in improvements for diagnosis and treatment of drug-resistant TB.

I’m very interested in how and where TB is transmitted,” Berhanu said. “We don’t have a very good understanding of where people acquire TB in high-burden settings, and we are often limited in our contact tracing only to households and family members. We often don’t find the source of the TB transmission in the household, which makes us believe that TB is being transmitted predominately outside of the household in high-burden settings. But we just don’t have a good sense of where,” she said.

She is currently using whole genome sequencing, GPS mapping and interviews to try to determine where individuals acquire TB outside of the household. And she’s interested in new diagnostic tests for TB and for subclinical TB, to help identify people before they become very ill with TB.

Berhanu said she is thankful for the support of VUMC in allowing her to remain largely based in South Africa.

“I’m fortunate that fits with the institutional priorities at Vanderbilt and that they want to have stronger ties with the University of Witwatersrand. It’s worked out perfectly,” she said.

“We are really delighted to welcome Dr. Berhanu to the faculty,” said Kimryn Rathmell, MD, PhD, Hugh J. Morgan Professor and chair of the Department of Medicine. “She is a brilliant physician-scientist, focusing her attention on a topic of global importance. Her presence will be impactful on two hemispheres.”

Originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Berhanu completed her undergraduate degree at Stanford University and earned her medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine. She did her clinical training in internal medicine at the University of Chicago and her fellowship in infectious diseases at the University of North Carolina. She subsequently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Boston University School of Public Health.

She and her husband, Amanuel Gebremeskel, also from Ethiopia, are parents to 4-year-old twins, Delina and Leah.