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Study to Address the Social drivers of Mental Illness Launched in Uganda by Kennesaw State University & Makerere University



A new 5-year study has been announced to determine the link between social drivers and mental health among young women who live in the slums of Kampala in Uganda.  Kennesaw State University (KSU) received the five-year $3.3 million award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and has partnered with Makerere University to conduct this interdisciplinary project.  

Mental illnesses are understudied, and scarce services lack evaluations, particularly in low-resource settings such as slums. In response to the vulnerable state of adolescent girls and young women in the urban slums, the team of researchers are implementing this five-year project named “TOPOWA” (The Onward Project On Well-being and Adversity), which means to “keep pushing forward and never giving up”, in the Luganda language.

Makerere University through the School of Public Health is teaming up with two U.S universities, Kennesaw State University (KSU) and Georgia State University (GSU) in the U.S. to implement the research component of the study. The Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL), a community-based organization in Kampala will lead the intervention components.

Some of the beneficiaries of the TOPOWA Project attend a tailoring course.
Some of the beneficiaries of the TOPOWA Project attend a tailoring course.

First of its kind, “the TOPOWA project will examine if a community-based intervention program comprised of vocational training, entrepreneurship and economic empowerment, team building through sports, and psychosocial support (“Socioeconomic Strengthening Targeted Training: “SeSTT”). leads to better mental health outcomes among disadvantaged women living in slums” said Dr. Monica Swahn, the Principal Investigator of the study.

The TOPOWA research project will focus on young women ages 18-24 years, the age period when most mental health symptoms are manifested and expressed. If the study shows that the intervention makes a difference in mental health outcomes (i.e., anxiety, depression, suicidality and substance use symptoms and disorders) for young women, it can address the tremendous unmet mental health needs in Uganda. The study will also increase the understanding of the community and neighborhood characteristics of the urban slums where the young women reside.

It was launched on Tuesday March 8, 2022, on International Women’s Day, a global holiday celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. Speaking at the launch, Dr. Swahn, the Principal Investigator, and also Professor and Dean of the Wellstar College of Health and Human Services at KSU said “TOPOWA was in support of global action to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls”

Dr. Swahn, the Principal Investigator, and also Professor and Dean of the Wellstar College of Health and Human Services at KSU
Dr. Swahn, the Principal Investigator, and also Professor and Dean of the Wellstar College of Health and Human Services at KSU

She also noted that this was a ground-breaking study, with investigators representing diverse expertise from three universities.

“Our TOPOWA project is ground-breaking because we look at the social drivers of mental illness and how to mitigate them. We conceived this project before the pandemic, but now with the pandemic, we know more than ever how mental health has been understudied and the growing scope of unmet need in the community,” she said.  Dr. Swahn also added that, “We don’t have enough interventions for mental health in particularly among vulnerable populations in low-resource settings. So, what we have learnt post-COVID is that we need to find scalable interventions to better support mental health for women who live in poverty, particularly women who live in slums.”

Using a multicomponent 27-month, parallel prospective cohort design of young women, the study team will recruit 300 participants from three selected UYDEL study sites in Banda, Bwaise and Makindye to determine the pathways and mechanisms of mental health outcomes.  The study will involve focus groups, a Photovoice project, community mapping, surveys, use of sleep wearables, saliva and stress reactivity to detect and determine stress levels of the young women.

The investigators will measure stress though threat reactivity in fear conditioning tests, ratio of salivary cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and α-amylase, and sleep quality by deploying Fitbit wearable sensors for each study participant as well measuring environmental stressors through geotrackers.

“We will ask these young women to wear these Fitbits. These will pick up on the measure of sleep. We know that when people are stressed, they have poor mental health, but also, they have poor sleep,” said Prof. Swahn.  She adds that these Fitbit devices are worn just like a wrist watch. “They will give us a lot of insight to what happens at night when people are sleeping. The women may or may not be sleeping as well as they should. So again, it’s another marker of stress, their well-being and physical health. It really adds another important innovative component of the study. We looked for other studies across the sub-Saharan Africa and have not found any studies that use this technology in this type of setting so these gadgets will give us a lot of insight.”

Some of the young women beneficiaries of the project entertain visitors at the Bwaise UYDEL site
Some of the young women beneficiaries of the project entertain visitors at the Bwaise UYDEL site

Dr. Catherine Abbo, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Makerere University College of Health Sciences, and Co-Investigator of the TOPOWA study, says depression and other mental health issues are on the rise in Uganda, though they continue to go unrecognized.

“These women actually don’t even reach the clinic but people just suffer while they are in the communities. There are different anxiety disorders. So, the current estimates from the previous research shows about 1 in every 4 people have mental health issues,” Dr. Abbo says.

Asked about what could be the drivers of mental health in young adults, Dr. Abbo contends some of the drivers are psychosocial arising from the environment we live in while others maybe genetically predisposed.

Dr. Catherine Abbo, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Makerere University College of Health Sciences, and Co-Investigator of the TOPOWA study.
Dr. Catherine Abbo, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Makerere University College of Health Sciences, and Co-Investigator of the TOPOWA study.

“If you are going to live in an environment that is poverty stricken, you are going to live in an environment where you are not going to access education, you are not going to have support that you need to be mentally healthy, you become vulnerable to getting mental illness and that is the environmental aspect. And then we have individuals, who, because of their genetic makeup, may develop cause mental illness,” she said.

According to Dr. Abbo, the wearables are new technologies and that this is the first of its kind to be used in research in Uganda. “You know sometimes people go jogging and have phones that take the number of their steps, heart rate, so in the general population we have gadgets that can measure some aspects of body reactions but particularly in this case, it’s going to measure sleep patterns, that signify stress levels.”

Mr. Rogers Kasirye, UYDEL’s Executive Director, argues that many a time, intervention projects have been implemented among youth but they fail because of the inability to tackle underlying issues affecting the young people. He says this study to investigate the mental health status of the young women will go a long way in impacting the way such initiatives can be implemented to achieve greater success.

Executive Director of UYDEL, Rogers Kasirye.
Executive Director of UYDEL, Rogers Kasirye.

According to Mr. Kasirye, for over 25 years, UYDEL has worked with young people in the in the slums of Kampala and impacted many young people through their skilling and rehabilitation programs. He pointed out that  that a majority of the young people in slums face a lot of challenges including poverty, lack of shelter while others have long lost contact with their families.

“But we don’t go beyond to investigate and support their psychosocial needs. From experience, some people who come to our facilities have alcohol and other problems. Many times, they are even failing to sleep. Some even come to the Centre and tell you that they have not had a meal. You know what it means to sleep on an empty stomach. Others say they lost contact with their families while others say they have been sexually abused and others raped. In other words, they have a mountain of psychosocial needs that must be addressed. With this project, we hope to track girls for several years to match the research findings with empowerment interventions,” said Mr. Kasirye.

TOPOWA Study PI Prof. Monica Swahn interracts with Makerere University School of Public Health team. In the photo, Dr. JB Isunju, Mr. Charles Ssemugabo and Ezekiel Musasizi.
TOPOWA Study PI Prof. Monica Swahn interracts with Makerere University School of Public Health team. In the photo, Dr. JB Isunju, Mr. Charles Ssemugabo and Ezekiel Musasizi.

Ms. Anna Kavuma, the Deputy Executive Director, UYDEL says the COVID-19 pandemic has had a toll on mental health issues among young women by increasing their vulnerability.

She notes that whereas the boys have equally been affected by the pandemic and could have pushed them to high stress levels, girls have a high level of vulnerability with responsibilities such as bringing up the children, dealing with pregnancies, accessing medical supplies as well as shelter.

Ms. Anna Kavuma, the Deputy Executive Director, UYDEL.
Ms. Anna Kavuma, the Deputy Executive Director, UYDEL.

“It’s quite difficult for the girls. It’s an understatement for me to say that they are not highly affected by mental issues in Uganda, that is why this project is coming in to understand that. For instance, if we gave young girls vocational skills and training in beauty and cosmetics, or any other vocational skilling, will it help reduce on these stresses that they have? Will it help address the underlying factors that they are facing? Will it help to improve  the way they sleep? Will it help improve  the stress levels? These are areas we are trying to study and we are hopeful that the results of the study will inform not only programming and practice but also inform policy environment as well,” said Nabulya.

The project’s intervention arm will look at skilling the adolescent girls and young women with the cost-effective beauty training, which the researchers say is also very easy to implement. Dr. Swahn, the PI noted, “We are hoping that if it’s shown to be effective, that is something that can be implemented in other communities and we know that many are offering vocational training but they have not been evaluated the way we are doing it with a very vigorous scientific protocol.

The TOPOWA Research team.
The TOPOWA Research team.

Dr. Rhoda Wanyenze, Professor and Dean, Makerere University School of Public Health thanked Prof. Swahn and UYDEL for partnering with MakSPH to implement this important project citing that the School was ready to work with the team.

“Mental health for young people is such an important area and very timely coming after the challenges and stress from the Coronavirus pandemic! We are excited to partner with you on this project,” said Prof. Wanyenze.

The TOPOWA Research Team is composed of nine investigators spanning two continents and three universities.  The Project’s Principal Investigator (PI) is Dean and Professor Monica Swahn of Kennesaw State University. The Co-Investigators of the project include Dr. Cathy Abbo, Dr. Godfrey Bbosa, Dr. John Bosco Isunju, Charles Ssemugabo and Dr. Eddy Walakira from Makerere University, Dr. Ebony Glover from KSU and Dr. Rachel Culbreth and Dr. Karen Nielsen from GSU.

TOPOWA Pictorial.
TOPOWA Pictorial.

The Executive Director of UYDEL, Rogers Kasirye, leads the implementing partner whose mission is “to enhance socioeconomic transformation of disadvantaged young people through advocacy and skills development for self-reliance”.  

The TOPOWA Project Advisory Board is composed of members from the Kampala City Government, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development as well as the Dean for the Makerere University School of Public Health.

Davidson Ndyabahika is the Communications Officer, MakSPH/TOPOWA Project

Article originally posted on MakSPH website


METS Newsletter May 2024



The newly appointed CDC Uganda Country Director, Dr. Adetinuke Mary Boyd (7th from left) met with country implementing partner Executive Directors to get insights on ongoing projects, discussed leveraging of partnerships as well as strategizing for how best to strengthen health systems. Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI)-McKinnell Knowledge Centre, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda, East Africa.

The Monitoring and Evaluation Technical Support (METS) Program is a 5-year CDC-supported collaboration of Makerere University School of Public Health (MakSPH), the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and Health Information Systems Program (HISP Uganda).

Highlights of the METS May 2024 Newsletter

  • Enhancing Response to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
    • Responding to and preventing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) and Violence Against Children (VAC) are critical components of Uganda’s national HIV prevention program. METS developed a new app designed to improve support for SGBV survivors. This followed an assessment in December 2022, that revealed gaps in service access and coordination in Fort Portal and Kampala Regions.
    • The METS team, in collaboration with regional implementing partners, is scaling up the app’s use in pilot districts such as Masaka, Kiryandongo, Fort Portal, and Mubende. The team visited facilities and police stations to install the app and train selected focal persons on its use.
  • Assessing Readiness for Integrated HIV and NCD Care Services
    • METS supported the Ministry of Health to conduct a site readiness assessment for integrated delivery of HIV and Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) services from 22nd to 26th April 2024, in collaboration with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and various implementing partners. The activity was conducted in selected health facilities in Acholi, Mubende, Kayunga, and Rwenzori regions to determine their feasibility for participating in a comprehensive NCD evaluation.
    • The 48 facilities visited have already integrated NCD services (mental Health, diabetes, and hypertension). Of these, 78% have integrated mental health services in their PMTCT clinics. 40% of the facilities have a dedicated NCD services physicians /doctor in the ART Clinic, 29% have doc have dedicated physicians in the PMTCT clinics. 90%. Most of the facilities have clinical and nurses in the ART than PMTCT facilities but more nurses offering NCD services in PMTCT sites.
  • Digitalizing the health sector through strategic partnerships
    • In collaboration with CDC and METS, the MoH organized a national Electronic Medical Records (EMR) stakeholders meeting to orient stakeholders on the national EMR agenda and transition towards a comprehensive digital health facility package. Key actions discussed included expanding the rollout of the EMR and Community Health Information System (eCHIS) and urging development partners to support prioritized health information and digital health investments.
    • The introduction of electronic medical records (EMRs) in health facilities aims to improve the quality of health service delivery by providing real-time accountability transparency, and traceability of medical supplies, monitoring health worker absenteeism, enhancing patient satisfaction through efficient care provision, reducing unnecessary or duplicate diagnostic tests, and offering easy access to management reports for decision-making. Additionally, EMRs will lay the foundation for the implementation of national health insurance.
  • UgandaEMR+ Implementation Showcased at Kisenyi HCIV
    • METS and Reach Out Mbuya (ROM) showcased the implementation of UgandaEMR+ to representatives from the USG and the Ministry of Health (MoH) at Kisenyi HCIV. The visit was aimed at providing a clear understanding of the system’s functionality at the health facility, which serves over 1,200 outpatients daily and supports over 1600 clients on ART.
    • Dr. Peter Akonyera, the ART Clinic In Charge shared positive end-user experiences, noting simplified data use and analysis, efficient data retrieval, and the system’s popularity among users despite existing challenges. He appreciated METS’ support in maintaining system synchronization. The data visualization tools have been particularly useful for clinicians to manage patient schedules and workload distribution effectively, ensuring timely and efficient healthcare delivery.
  • METS Showcases Research at INTEREST 2024 Conference in Benin
    • The International Conference on HIV Treatment, Pathogenesis, and Prevention Research (INTEREST) brought together global scientists to share cutting-edge knowledge in HIV diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. The conference also aimed to build a community of African physicians and scientists to develop local solutions for managing HIV and preventing its transmission.
    • METS submitted an abstract titled “Enhancing HIV Case Identification through a National HIV Testing Services (HTS) Continuous Quality Improvement” based on support to the Ministry of Health (MoH) in designing, implementing, and evaluating initiatives to increase the identification of HIV-positive clients, crucial for achieving the global target of 95% of people living with HIV (PLHIV) knowing their status.
  • Gallery
    • New CDC Director meets Country implementing partner Executive Directors
    • UgandaEMR+ support supervision at Kisenyi HCIV visit
    • EMR Stakeholders meeting
    • CBS guidelines meeting
    • INTEREST 2024 conference – Benin
    • Key Populations assessment – Ishaka district

View on METS

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SIMCS-Trial Vacancy Announcement: Twenty-Five (25) Research Assistants



An elevated shot of the School of Health Sciences and School of Medicine Building, College of Health Sciences (CHS), Makerere University. Mulago Campus, Kampala Uganda, East Africa.

Makerere University College of Health Sciences School of Medicine in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine received funding from US National Institutes of Health – Fogarty International Center to carry out a study on “Development and evaluation of an information management and communication system for population-wide point of-care infant sickle cell disease screening (SIMCS-Trial)”. The program seeks to recruit 25 research assistants at its study sites. 

Roles and responsibilities  

  • Identify and screen participants for possible enrolment into the study according to the Study Protocol.
  • Obtain informed consent from caregivers of eligible participants as per protocol accordance with GCP and HSP principles.
  • Counsel and explain study procedures to the caregivers of study participants using the mobile app.
  • Enrol eligible participants into the study to meet the study accrual targets.
  • Complete study CRFs, correctly and accurately in compliance with trial procedures/ SOPs and GCP standards.
  • Ensure study participants’ safety and privacy, data integrity and confidentiality.
  • Participate in collection of appropriate study samples/specimens from the participants as per protocol and SOPs as well as performing the test.
  • Carry out any other duties as assigned by superiors in line with your work.

Required Qualification and experience 

  • A degree in any health-related discipline, and registered with the relevant national bodies.
  • Knowledge and familiarity with Microsoft word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access as well as basic internet applications 
  • Skills in using common relevant computer packages and mobile technology for data collection
  • Previous work in a research environment is added advantage.
  • Basic knowledge of clinical research regulatory procedures. 
  • Good Clinical Practice (GCP) training and Research Ethics training skills and knowledge
  • Excellent command of English (written and oral) as well as the local languages (Luganda or Lusoga)
  • Excellent interpersonal skills to develop relationships with participants.
  • Experience of living and or working both in urban and rural environment.
  • Team-working skills to work effectively as part of a multidisciplinary healthcare team 
  • Time management skills and ability to handle multiple tasks simultaneously.
  • Highly organized, detail-oriented and self-motivated/driven. 
  • Ability to handle multiple tasks simultaneously. 
  • Ability to professionally communicate in writing, verbally or other means deemed appropriate. 

Reports to: The SIMCS Co-Investigator/SIMCS Trial Coordinator 

Expected start date: July 2024

How to apply: 1-page type written application letter addressed to the Principal Investigator SIMCS Trial MakCHS SOM together with current CV, copies of academic certificates, and recommendation letters from two past employers should be e-mailed as ONE PDF DOCUMENT to

Deadline for receiving applications: Friday 20th June 2024 at 5:00 pm

Only shortlisted candidates will be invited to the interview. 

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CTCA Call for Proposals: Enhance Tobacco Control Institutional Capacity in Africa



Call for Proposals - Project Title: Enhance Tobacco Control Institutional Capacity in Africa; Grant #339. Deadline 30th June 2024, by 5pm EAT. The Centre for Tobacco Control in Africa (CTCA), School of Public Health, College of Health Sciences (CHS), Makerere University, Kampala Uganda, East Africa.

Project Title: Enhance Tobacco Control Institutional Capacity in Africa; Grant #339


The Centre for Tobacco Control in Africa (CTCA) received funding from the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) for the 2024-2026 to implement a project on institutional capacity. The project investments are geared towards sustaining human resource capacity and knowledge generation to reduce use of all forms of tobacco products in Africa. Specifically, the project aims to:

  1. Enhance training opportunities for African governments and relevant actors in tobacco control in
    the continent
  2. Increase access to knowledge for guiding tobacco use prevention and control in Africa
  3. Reinforce the institutional development of CTCA for an optimal performance of its functions
    and processes.

In 2020, CTCA developed a Tobacco Control Research Agenda (TCRA) with the aim of providing a guide for generating local evidence to drive tobacco control policy formulation and implementation in Africa.

Therefore, CTCA with support from ACBF is seeking researchers across the African continent to be awarded 6 small grants of USD 5000 to implement research that aligns with the TCRA thematic areas below:

  1. Patterns and trends of tobacco use and exposure for all tobacco products including the new
    products at country and regional levels (sex, age, region, types of products, new products).
  2. Effects of tobacco use and exposure on sustainable development (poverty, education, culture, food security, environment, HIV, TB, reproductive health, NCDs).
  3. Tobacco use and populations at risk (youth, young adults, women/gender, elderly, residents
    of urban areas, miltary, prisoners, mental health patients, populations in low socio-economic
    dwellings like slums).
  4. Tobacco control policy research and analysis (smoke free, TAPS, GHWs, ceasation) of cost
    effectiveness, impact, drivers, enablers, innovation, challenges, communication and advocacy
    for tobacco control.
  5. Sociocultural context of tobacco use
  6. Tobacco industry and tobacco control policy
  7. Tobacco production, alternative livelihoods and environment (distribution, value chain,
    environmental impact, historical and determinants of tobacco production)
  8. The economics of tobacco and tobacco control (product, pricing, illicit tobacco trade,

The full research Agenda can be accessed in English and in French.


We are pleased to invite submissions from researchers based in Africa. Successful proposals should align with any of the 8 thematic areas of the CTCA Research Agenda. Innovative proposals that address critical issues and contribute to evidence-based policy and practice in the respective areas to inform Tobacco control in Africa are particularly encouraged.


These grants will fund work that relates to the CTCA Research Agenda. Activities will include
proposal development, data collection and analysis, report writing and dissemination. All research to be implemented will be approved by the institutional review board and published in peer reviewed journals. These grants are intended for; 1) Researchers based in Tobacco Control Programs/Response; 2) post graduate students who would like to complete their research projects aligned to this call and 3) early and middle career researchers. It is required that this research is executed, and the report completed within 12 months. The applicant should have a mentor in an established institution.


Eligibility is restricted to Africa-based researchers. This refers to individuals who are (a) currently studying at a university or research institute in Africa, and/or b) currently working within a university, research institute, or in tobacco control in Africa. All persons associated with tobacco industry will not be funded and therefore should not apply. Successful applicants will be required to sign a declaration of interest that they do not have any relationship with tobacco industry.

Evaluation criteria

Proposals will be reviewed by a group of experts and researchers. Projects will be assessed against six, equally weighted evaluation criteria:

  • Knowledge contribution in respect to policy, strategy, and evidence to answer local
    Does the study articulate the research gap? Does study make a significant
    contribution toward advancing knowledge in the tobacco control field? Does it answer
    new questions or introduce novel methods, measures, or tobacco control interventions? Is
    it aligned to the WHO FCTC and tobacco control local context requirements? Does the
    study add to the existing body of research?
  • Policy relevance: Will results from the research have generalizable implications? How,
    if at all, will the “lessons learned” have relevance beyond the study? Will the study
    outcomes influence decisions in tobacco control?
  • Technical design: Do the methods appropriately answer the objectives and the questions
    outlined in the proposal? Is the proposed study feasible in one year?
  • Project viability: Are there any other logistical or political obstacles that might threaten
    the completion of the study, for example, government authorization or Human Subjects
    review, civil strife, social cultural sensitivity?
  • Value of research: Is the cost of the study commensurate with the value of expected
    contributions to policy? Are the planned activities justified and coherent?
  • Ethics: Reviewers will consider whether there are any risks of harm to research
    participants, what the proposed risk mitigation strategies are, and how the possible
    benefits of the research compare to the possible harms.

Application Process

Apply HERE not later than 30th June 2024, by 5pm EAT. Applicants are required to provide a
recommendation/support letter from their supervisors or heads of department.

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