PROJECT SUCCESS: 70s genius still setting new benchmarks

Dr Alexander Coutinho

In Part XI of Project Success, Benon Herbert Oluka profiles Dr Alexander Coutinho, Uganda’s best student in the Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE) of 1971, at O-Level in 1975 and A-Level in 1977:

As we awaited the arrival of Queen Elizabeth II of England at Mildmay Centre on Entebbe Road on November 22, 2007, Dr Alexander Coutinho narrated how he had travelled to three continents in less than a week and then flown back home in time for the historic royal visit. And as soon as he was done with that segment of his work, he had added then, Dr Coutinho would again be sky-bound for yet another foreign assignment.

And yet that was during the interval between the time Dr Coutinho completed his tenure as head of The Aids Support Organisation (Taso) and when he was appointed to serve as Executive Director of the Infectious Diseases Institute of Makerere University.

Little wonder that, over the last month or so, efforts to get an opportunity to interview Dr Coutinho have been fruitless – with his mobile phone often off and his secretary saying he was either out of the country or busy with different engagements. However, without the profile of the only individual to have led the country at primary seven, O-Level and A-Level, Project Success would be so much poorer for its omission. Born in Hoima District in 1959, Dr Coutinho completed his primary education at Victoria Nile Primary School in Jinja District, from where he emerged the best student nationwide in 1971.

Hard times
He was admitted to St. Mary’s College, Kisubi, where he emerged the best O-Level student in Uganda and East Africa in 1975. Dr Coutinho did not let up in A-Level either, once again leading Uganda in 1977 – not a mean feat considering the conditions his generation studied under during the tumultuous decade of the Idi Amin presidency.

The A-level perfomamnce was particularly impressive, in addition to his academic obligations, Dr Coutinho served as head prefect. After five years at Makerere University Medical School, which he joined in 1978, Dr Coutinho continued his unique feat when he graduated top of his class in 1983.

Even for a man blessed with his brilliance, Dr Coutinho has racked up more than his fair share of academic honours over the years. They include a Masters of Science (Physiology) that was awarded by Makerere University in 1987, and diplomas from the University of Witwatersrand in tropical medicine and hygiene, public health, and health service management over three years from 1994.

Dr Coutinho also received a Masters of Science degree in Public Health from the University of Witwatersrand in 2001, in addition to the diploma that he earned in primary emergency care from the College of Medicine in South Africa.

Dr Coutinho cut his medical teeth at St. Francis Hospital, Nsambya where he did his internship in 1983. Thereafter, he was retained as a medical officer until 1985. It was at Nsambya Hospital first got to work with patients suffering from a disease that would later define most of his professional life.

“In the 24 years since then, I have spent most of my medical and public health career either providing care and treatment for people living with HIV, conducting HIV prevention campaigns, participating in global advocacy on issues of HIV and in the last seven years providing leadership for two key institutions in the fight against HIV/Aids – The Aids Support Organisation – TASO – and currently as director of the Infectious Diseases Institute of Makerere University,” Dr Coutinho wrote in a 2008 article for the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

Between 1986 and 1989, Dr Coutinho also lectured at the Makerere University Medical School. Then in 1989, he moved to Swaziland, where he is credited with starting one of the first care programmes for people living with HIV in that country. In the 12 years that he worked in Swaziland, Dr Coutinho also established the first occupational health programme for people living with HIV in the private sector.

Dr Coutinho returned to Uganda in June 2001 and shortly after took over as the Executive Director of Taso. At Taso, he was responsible for the scale up of Taso services for 100,000 clients living with HIV, of whom some 20,000 were on anti-retroviral therapy.

At Taso, Dr Coutinho is credited with increasing the organisation’s annual funding from $3 million to $22 million and expanding care for its HIV-positive clients from 20,000 to 80,000.

Dr Coutinho has also served in other capacities at international level; he was a member of the interim board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, representing Taso in the process of setting up the Fund in 2001. He was also the vice-chair of the Global Fund Technical Review from 2002-2004 and has served as the Vice Chairperson of the International Board for the International Partnership for Microbicides (IPM) since 2005.

Dr Coutinho is married with three children. Having watched his mother, Martha, who worked as a midwife in Jinja, and dreamt of one day becoming a doctor, Dr Coutinho is literally living his dream.