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Mak Researcher Designs “COVID Alphabet” for Awareness and Behavioral Change

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By Joseph Odoi

With the increasingly worrying situation of the novel coronavirus and its devastating global effect, Makerere University has once again taken an institutional lead by designing a behavioral change communication model to support government efforts in fighting against the pandemic. The COVID Alphabet (A-Z of COVID in Uganda) was developed by Dr. Gloria Seruwagi, a lecturer at Makerere University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHUSS) and School of Public Health (MakSPH).

While briefing journalists during the model’s unveiling at Makerere University on February 17th, 2021,  Dr. Seruwagi shared that she got the inspiration to design the simple and relatable evidence-based product after conducting a series of COVID-19 studies in different communities including the REFLECT study in humanitarian contexts and ALERTs study in different informal settlements within Kampala.

“If somebody wants to know what the key issues are about COVID-19 in Uganda, they can look at this Alphabet and have it all at a glance, without having to go through the long process of reading a 4 or 15-page document. This is not just an alphabet for learning phonetics or numbers. It is a Know, Think and Act (KTA) tool packed with nuggets of information” Dr. Seruwagi emphasized.  

The COVID Alphabet is not only easy on the eye and deliberately simple but is also factual and anchored in research. It should resonate with anyone at any level – from the busy policymaker or program manager to someone outside Uganda in need of quick facts.

 The Alphabet also speaks to today’s virtual workplace teams, community leaders, and any person on the street or at home. It contains critical study findings compressed into a quick and concise summary of the COVID trajectory, experiences, and outcomes. It also gives key pointers on key population groups, sectors, mitigation strategies, and action points for different stakeholders.

The Alphabet begins by stating that Awareness of COVID-19 is high but Adherence extremely low. It then flags up the increasingly urgent need for effective Behavioral change messages now more than ever, even more than knowledge-only messages.  Community transmissions are on the rise; as is prevention complacency while Deaths, infection and recovery from COVID-19 remain shrouded in mystery.

Uganda continues to face another battle of the serious infodemic challenge with myths, falsehoods and risky perceptions being plenty. Enforcement fatigue has become more pronounced with relaxation of some restrictions and unfortunately Fatigue from the enforcement side is coinciding with high community transmission. The Alphabet acknowledges the important role and success registered by Government-led approaches; however, it shows that these more community support and leadership.

Hand washing is listed as a more feasible prevention measure compared to sanitizing, social distancing, wearing masks and staying at home. This is in harmony with research carried out by other studies which showed that hand washing was the most adhered to guideline at the peak of COVID-19 as most households had hand washing points. 

Dr. Seruwagi says adds that Infection control has largely been well managed at public places and offices compared to communities. And while the model recognizes that mass distribution of Masks did not reach everybody; mask use among those who have is low, inconsistent and improper.

Dr. Seruwagi unveiling the COVID Alphabet

This also alludes to study findings which found a lot of negative face mask practices including chin-masking, sharing masks, wearing ill-fitting masks, keeping them in pockets and back or not having a mask at all.  Moving forward, Seruwagi advises the government to not only give out masks but revitalize enforcement of SOPs, reminding people of the dangers and health risks posed by the pandemic.

Norms and culture are both drivers and barriers to compliance. This alphabet statement agrees with research findings which show that the practice of hand washing with soap was much higher in Muslim communities because it’s in tandem with their beliefs and socio-cultural practices. The model also highlights the need to Optimally leverage existing community structures, systems and resources for compliance.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Psychosocial and mental health challenges that have taken on new and more complex forms. And while the need for social networks and connections is very important, Dr Seruwagi also recommends that Quiet spaces and isolation should be championed as positive and potentially productive.

This is in line with trying to get the community avoid unnecessary movement and avoid or behave responsibly while in public gatherings. It will enable communities to not feel punitively restricted but rather appreciate the protective effect of measures such as curfews.

In terms of Reproductive health, the Alphabet shows that services are severely constrained and products very scarce, inaccessible or expensive. Related to this is that the pandemic has worsened SRH outcomes, especially among adolescents and youth since the advent of the pandemic.

Teenage pregnancies and transactional sex by children and youth have increased; calling for parents, teachers, leaders and other stakeholders to act. ‘’If we are saying that there is a lot of teenage pregnancies and transactional sex by adolescents, what should teachers do, what are parents doing to protect their children?” she remarked in a call for action.

Dr. Seruwagi’s landmark model then turns to the country’s globally lauded success in refugee-hosting. It highlights the Uganda’s porous borders and high refugee population, noting that this comes with daily interaction across borders and some of this interaction risky with potential for disease transmission and other risks beyond health for example security risks.

The model shows that Violence of various forms increased during COVID-19; and everyone was affected including men and children. In some of the studies conducted, Violence against Men (VAM) is emerging as a key theme but the Ugandan culture largely operates in a culture of silence and there are not enough or effective services addressing male survivors of violence – most interventions have focused more on women. Moreover, child protection systems were rendered more fragile by the pandemic.

All these services and intervention points need strengthening. The Willingness and resourcefulness of community leaders needs to be harnessed and effectively utilized. And Dr Seruwagi says that the timing is a good one in terms of policy implementation, with the recent launch of the Community Engagement Strategy where VHTs, community leaders and other local structures are critically positioned to make a significant contribution if well-resourced and supported. It mentions Xanic and resilient approaches for COVID-19 while also highlight children, adolescents and Youth as a severely-affected but largely “invisible” group during Uganda’s the first wave.

Finally, the model recognizes the role of technology like Zoom meetings and while it acknowledges that virtual spaces are the ‘new normal’, Dr Seruwagi calls for a thorough and ongoing review on their safety and impact on productivity or team cohesion. “For example, the people delivering essential services needed during these difficult COVID times might, themselves, be in serious need of mental health and psychosocial support or specific workplace provisions,” she said.

Dr. Seruwagi implored leaders, teachers, parents, civil society organizations, policymakers and all health stakeholders to pick an action point from each Alphabet letter to implement if COVID-19 is to be countered.   “As a country we already crossed a line where infections were managed at facility level. With the current community spread, let’s reflect on this COVID Alphabet and let each person pick at least one action point”. She called upon senior policymakers and BCC specialists to take up the model as guiding tool to support the national response.

The COVID Alphabet is the first of its kind in Africa and has attracted media attention with different people describing it as factual, precise, simple and easy to understand.

Article originally published on MakSPH

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Fostering Continuous Improvement of Public Health Laboratory Services In Uganda: IDI’s Contribution (2018-2020)

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One of the staff uses the Abbott m2000 RealTime System in the Core Laboratory (CL), IDI, Makerere University.

The Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI), Makerere University houses a state of the art laboratory – the Core Laboratory (CL) – certified by the College of American Pathologists (CAP) and accredited by the Uganda Ministry of Health (MoH) as a lead partner in strengthening laboratory systems.

In line with its 5-year (2018-2023) goal of ‘providing high-quality lab services at IDI to meet both clinical and research demands, to support the sustained improvement of lab capacity across Uganda with systems of assured and consistent quality’ to conduct routine testing, specialized clinical research trials, and detection of virulent pathogens of epidemic outbreak nature.

To match internationally standards for clinical laboratory methodologies and clinical applications, the CL has maintained a 25-year record of conducting at least 01 internal audit, 04 external audits annually, besides bi-annual inspections by the College of American Pathologists (CAP), to incorporate the latest best practices. Further, the CL continuously improves its technology and automation to increase productivity and enhance testing turnaround time (TAT).

The CL operates in a One IDI approach, where sister Technical Programs source its support, besides the Ministry of Health of Uganda, local and international academic research institutions and individual research fellows. The outbreak of COVID-19 in December 2019 was an opportunity for growth and expansion for the CL, to support national and global preparedness and response to infection prevention and control (IPC). To date, the CL has registered several milestones in enhancing disease laboratory TAT for COVID-19 testing, strengthening human capacity at the forefront on COVID-19 IPC, sustaining laboratory services for other communicable and non-communicable diseases as well as answering research questions.

Please see Downloads for the full technical brief.

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UniCare App: 24/7 Access to Counselling

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UniCare App: 24/7 Access to Professional Counselling Services. Available on Google Play Store.

The Counselling and Guidance Centre (CGC) has developed UniCare, a counselling App for the Makerere University community members (Staff and Students).

Do you have personal concerns that need addressing?

Do you need to improve your life skills?

Are you struggling with something and need to talk to someone professional in confidence?

Then download UniCare from the Play Store and use it at any time of your convenience.

You can access counselling services through instant messaging, phone calls and other forms.

Enquiries:

Tel: +256-751-700897
Email: rbaguma[at]cit.ac.ug, henry.nsubuga[at]mak.ac.ug

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Call for Applications: PhD Fellowships in Bioethics (4th Cohort)

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The Davies Lecture Theatre (Right), School of Biomedical Sciences (Blue) and other buildings at the College of Health Sciences (CHS), Mulago Campus, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda

Applications are invited for PhD fellowships in bioethics from Makerere University College of Health Sciences (CHS) faculty and individuals who participate in the academic activities of the college who are interested and COMMITTED to becoming bioethics scholars.

Successful applicants should be willing to become bioethics scholars as they work within the structured and mentored training programme with a focus on any aspect of international research bioethics related to Health Sciences. Funding will be available to support 2 successful doctoral candidates up to 3 years of accelerated training leading to the award of the Makerere University doctoral degree.

Eligibility

This training is open to faculty including people who contribute to teaching and research at Makerere University or one of its partner institutions in Uganda, who meet any of the following criteria:

a. Able to articulate a clear research bioethics problem of interest to them.
b. Demonstrate prior participation in bioethics, beyond having submitted research proposals to an IRB.
c. Demonstrate a basic understanding of bioethics in order to know that this is an appropriate next step for the applicant.
d. Demonstrate past active participation in bioethics in health service delivery or at the interface of health related ethical-legal issues
e. Provide evidence of experience in research in bioethics and or authorship in this field
f. Prior master’s level or fellowship level training in bioethics or related fields.

Criteria for Selection

  1. Demonstrated interest in doctoral research training and conducting research with a focus on
    research bioethics.
  2. Potential to handle rigorous academic requirements of the doctoral program.
  3. Having a plan for career development
  4. Capacity towards attaining research leadership and international recognition in bioethics.
  5. Female candidates and medical doctors are especially encouraged to apply

Application Process

Applications must be submitted to makbioethics[at]gmail.com and should consist of a cover letter (1 page only), a resume (not more than 3 pages), a personal statement (Maximum 1 page), a Makerere University formatted PhD research concept (Maximum 10 pages) and two letters of recommendation (sent separately by the referees to makbioethics[at]gmail.com). The personal statement should include your contribution to the academic and research life of a department at Makerere University College of Health Sciences, your aspirations for career progression in the next 5-7 years, research interests and any information you consider relevant.

Closing date for the receipt of applications is 8th October 2021.

Enquiries can be forwarded to the PI, of the PhD bioethics research training Program on makbioethics[at]gmail.com

Timelines:

  • Application deadline: October 8, 2021
  • Interviews: October 15, 2021
  • Notification date: October 22, 2021
  • Proposed start date: November 1, 2021

Part of this training will take place at Johns Hopkins University Berman Institute of Bioethics in the USA in Year 1 for a total of 2-3 months. Successful candidates will receive a monthly stipend based on USA National Institutes of Health regulations, tuition, research funds and travel to the USA. Applicants should demonstrate excellent communications skills and will be expected to work as part of a highly motivated, result oriented bioethics group.

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