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Dr. Nanyeenya Nicholus Hopes to Guide Uganda’s HIV Response with Research

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Clad in a coral red and black with green panels sewed into the front facings doctorate gown with emblems and ivory tower icons, Dr. Nicholus Nanyeenya can’t help, but, smile broadly as he fastens the long oblong sleeves. At last, his journey has come to an end, and he now holds a PhD. The vibrant colours form an indelible embroidery, weaving together the distinctive identity and essence of Makerere University.

A medical doctor by training, he has not only achieved a milestone but has emerged as a leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Uganda. He is part of the 132 PhD graduands in the week-long #Mak74thGrad, which begins on Monday, January 29, 2024.

Dr. Nanyeenya, popular in the corridors of Makerere University School of Public Health, as, ‘His Excellency,’ having served as a PhD Forum president studied; “Viral Non-Suppression, Perceptions and Effectiveness of Intensive Adherence Counselling among People Living with HIV/AIDS on Antiretroviral Therapy with Low-Level Viraemia in Uganda.”

Dr. Nicholus Nanyeenya presents during his PhD Defense on Thursday, December 7, 2023. College of Health Sciences, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda, East Africa.
Dr. Nicholus Nanyeenya presents during his PhD Defense on Thursday, December 7, 2023.

From MD to PhD

Dr. Nanyeenya’s passion for research began with a Master’s in Public Health (MPH) at the University of Aberdeen, UK back in 2018. Witnessing the critical role research played in health system decisions, he set his sights on a PhD at Makerere University, determined to impact HIV/AIDS policies in Uganda.

“I realized the importance of research in informing policy decisions in health systems strengthening and disease control. I noticed that at times, wrong implementation strategies were done in implementing HIV programs due to inadequate research skills, and this motivated me to start my PhD.

My goal was to generate information about HIV low-level viraemia to guide the review of the HIV guidelines in Uganda. In my PhD, I aimed to enhance my research, writing, and communication skills, to enable me to become an independent researcher and global health leader in HIV research and program implementation,” says Dr. Nanyeenya.

"By virtue of the authority entrusted in me, I confer up on you a degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Makerere University," these were exactly the words by the Chancellor as he conferred a PhD to Dr. Nicholas Nanyeeya. 74th Graduation Ceremony, Day 1, 29th January 2024, School of Public Health, College of Health Sciences (CHS), Freedom Square, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda, East Africa.
“By virtue of the authority entrusted in me, I confer up on you a degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Makerere University,” these were exactly the words by the Chancellor as he conferred a PhD to Dr. Nicholas Nanyeeya.

Previously in Uganda, individuals with a viral load (VL) below 1,000 copies/ml were considered to have effectively suppressed the virus, commended for antiretroviral adherence, and encouraged to continue treatment.

However, studies elsewhere identified a significant risk for those with low-level viraemia (≥50 to <1,000 copies/ml), including the potential for HIV drug resistance and transmission to partners, especially in discordant couples.

Despite an increase from 11 percent to 35 percent in Uganda between 2017 and 2020, using a 1,000 copies/ml threshold, no interventions were implemented to address this concerning trend.

It is this situation that motivated Dr. Nanyeenya to undertake a PhD research, to generate more information to address low-level viraemia in Uganda.

Dr. Nicholus Nanyeenya at a PhD Colloquium at MakSPH in 2022. College of Health Sciences, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda, East Africa.
Dr. Nicholus Nanyeenya at a PhD Colloquium at MakSPH in 2022.

Low-Level Viraemia in HIV Patients

His study revealed a surge in individuals with low-level viraemia (LLV), posing risks of drug resistance and transmission. This alarming trend prompted a swift response, influencing the revision of Uganda’s HIV guidelines.

“From my PhD research, the number of People Living with HIV (PLHIV) with LLV in Uganda increased from 2.0% in 2016 to 8.6% in 2020. LLV was associated with being male, second line regimen and being below 18 years of age. Relative to clients with a non-detectable viral load, PLHIV with LLV had 4.1 times higher risk of developing viral non-suppression, as compared to PLHIV with a non-detectable viral load (adjusted hazard ratio was 4.1, 95% CI: 3.7 to 4.7, p < 0.001),” he notes.

According to Dr. Nanyeenya, most people living with HIV were not aware of low-level viraemia, leading to a limited understanding of its associated risks. He adds that, healthcare workers providing HIV care exhibited insufficient knowledge about LLV, resulting in a lack of formal adherence counselling for LLV management.

In the intervention study, intensive adherence counselling (IAC) demonstrated a significant impact, with the intervention arm achieving a nearly twofold increase in attaining a non-detectable viral load status of 57.4 percent compared to the non-intervention arm which was at 29.9 percent.

His findings prompted a significant policy shift, lowering the viral suppression threshold. The Ministry of Health has also implemented IAC for those with 50 to <1,000 copies/ml.

“As already highlighted, these findings have already partly guided the review of the HIV guidelines in Uganda, changing the viral load suppression threshold for plasma and dried blood spot samples respectively. Ministry of Health in Uganda has also instituted IAC as intervention to manage people living with HIV having at least 50 but less than 1,000 copies/ml,” comfortably says.

Dr. Nanyeenya with MakSPH Faculty (L-R) Dr. Esther Buregyeya, Head, Disease Control and Environmental Health Department, Dr. Christine Nalwadda, Head, Community Health and Behavioral Sciences Department and Professor Christopher Garimoi Orach. 74th Graduation Ceremony, Day 1, 29th January 2024, School of Public Health, College of Health Sciences (CHS), Freedom Square, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda, East Africa.
Dr. Nanyeenya with MakSPH Faculty (L-R) Dr. Esther Buregyeya, Head, Disease Control and Environmental Health Department, Dr. Christine Nalwadda, Head, Community Health and Behavioral Sciences Department and Professor Christopher Garimoi Orach.

Mentorship

In his PhD journey, Dr. Nanyeenya found strength in mentorship, both from his distinguished supervisors and fellow PhD colleagues. He benefited from a multi-disciplinary team of four dedicated supervisors (Prof. Fredrick Makumbi, Prof. Noah Kiwanuka, Prof. Nakanjako Damalie, and Dr. Gertrude Nakigozi) who, armed with extensive expertise in his research field, guided him through various aspects of doctoral research. He also received valuable mentorship from Dr. Simon Peter Kibira, Dr. Susan Nabadda, Prof. Larry Chang, Dr. Kigozi Godfrey, Dr. Siu Godfrey, Dr. Fred Nalugoda, Prof. Anne Katahoire, and others.

“The most impactful aspect of my PhD journey was the land marking mentorship. This mentorship was both from my mentors who comprised of my supervisors and other experienced researchers from the field of HIV research. Peer mentorship from my fellow colleagues in the PhD Forum was also very key in enabling me to handle the entire PhD process,” he says.

The department’s head, Dr. Joan Mutyoba, also played a fundamental role, ensuring every detail of the journey was attended to.

“Dr. Joan Mutyoba, who would literally follow up on every single detail to ensure that we get the necessary assistance to progress. However, I should confess that there was still many moments of crying and distress in the three years journey, however through prayer and consultative meetings with the supervisors, fellow PhD colleagues and the head of department, most of these were overcame and that is why, I am graduating,” Dr. Nanyeenya.

Dr. Nicholus Nanyeenya with Dr. Juliet Babirye during a PhD Colloquium at MakSPH in 2022. College of Health Sciences, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda, East Africa.
Dr. Nicholus Nanyeenya with Dr. Juliet Babirye during a PhD Colloquium at MakSPH in 2022.

Completing a PhD in a record less than 3 years

Completing his PhD in less than three years, Dr. Nanyeenya emphasizes the importance of swift action. He advises aspiring PhD candidates to persevere through challenges, knowing that the victory is worth the effort. His mantra is clear: “Once you make up your mind to start a PhD, fast track it and complete it!”

Choosing a field for a Ph.D. that aligns with one’s understanding and prior work experience is crucial. “My decision to pursue a Ph.D. in HIV low-level viraemia, a field linked to HIV viral load testing, aligns with my professional background. As an international consultant strengthening HIV systems and a programs officer at CPHL, I’ve accumulated extensive experience in this area. This expertise proved invaluable in overcoming challenges related to my research topic during my Ph.D. studies,” he says.

Dr. Nicholus Nanyeenya cuts cake shortly after his PhD Defense on Thursday, December 7, 2023. College of Health Sciences, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda, East Africa.
Dr. Nicholus Nanyeenya cuts cake shortly after his PhD Defense on Thursday, December 7, 2023.

Looking ahead, Dr. Nanyeenya envisions becoming a global health leader, implementing evidence-based interventions to combat diseases in Uganda and beyond. His message echoes a profound truth: to control HIV and uplift Uganda, “We must love our country and fellow Ugandans.”

“I have worked as a consultant on health systems strengthening. This role has given me the opportunity to work with diverse communities in various developing countries, where I have witnessed many health challenges, characterized by many diseases of poverty and high mortality rates from rather preventable causes. My experience in the developed world has exposed me to the benefits of evidence-based interventions in promoting health and controlling diseases,” he says.

Dr. Nanyeenya Nicholus is not just graduating; he’s setting a course for a healthier, more resilient Uganda. His dedication to research, mentorship, and swift action exemplifies the transformative power of one individual committed to making a difference.

The study was funded by Rakai Health Service Program PhD Fogarty Training Scholarship, UJMT Fogarty Global Health Fellowship and Mak-BSSR program, and Makerere University Research and Innovation Fund (MakRIF).

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METS Newsletter March 2024

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A team documenting the background and other governance structure requirements in the EMR Implementation Guidelines during the stakeholder workshop held from 26th February to 1st March 2024. Makerere University School of Public Health (MakSPH), METS Program, 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 March 2024 Newsletter

  • Development of National Electronic Medical Records (EMR) Implementation Guidelines
    • To date, multiple Electronic Medical Records (EMR) systems have been rolled out to health facilities without implementation guidelines to inform the standard EMR process/clinical workflows within a typical health facility, minimum requirements for various EMRs to integrate and exchange patient information, insurance and billing workflows, human resources management, among others.
    • METS Program and USAID/SITES organized a five-day stakeholder workshop on 26th February to 1st March 2024, to develop and validate the EMR Implementation Guidelines for Uganda.
  • Improving the Quality of Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision
    • In February 2024, the METS Program, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MoH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Implementing Partners (IMs), conducted targeted onsite mentorship across 56 safe male circumcision sites in CDC-supported regions of Uganda.
    • Key findings highlighted the overall facility performance score of 78%, with 5 out of 8 thematic areas scoring above 80%. Notably, 99% of circumcised males had received Tetanus vaccines.
  • Innovation To Strengthen National Health Care Quality Improvement
    • The 10th National Health Care Quality Improvement (QI) conference brought together health service providers from various parts of the country to share experiences and what they are doing to improve service delivery to patients.
    • The Minister of Health, Hon. Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng, called for solutions that will provide answers especially in areas of governance and leadership, health workforce, information systems, service delivery, financing, special groups, and health products.
    • METS made a presentation on improved service delivery models focusing on empowering young women to stay HIV-free with the help of the Determined Resilient Empowered AIDS-free Mentored and Safe (DREAMS) initiative.
  • Gallery
    • Makerere University School of Public Health (MakSPH) launches state-of-the-art auditorium
    • Deploying latest EMR Version at Hoima RRH
    • Training of KCCA staff on use of Point of Care (POC) EMR
    • Stakeholder Workshop on Development of EMR Implementation Guidelines

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New Study Reveals Breastfeeding Mothers Embrace Nutrient-Rich Dish for Health Benefits

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Climbing beans on stakes in one of the gardens visited during the Efd-Mak Kabale District Sensitization in November 2021. Makerere University, Kampala Uganda, East Africa.

A study whose results were recently published in Food Science Nutrition, a peer-reviewed journal for rapid dissemination of research in all areas of food science and nutrition has revealed that there is a growing preference for wholesome meals, highlighting its numerous health benefits.

Titled; Lactating mothers’ perceptions and sensory acceptability of a provitamin A carotenoid–iron-rich composite dish prepared from iron-biofortified common bean and orange-fleshed sweet potato in rural western Uganda,” this study was conducted among pregnant and breastfeeding mothers seeking care at Bwera General Hospital, in Kasese district, western Uganda, between 4th and 15th of August 2023.

Researchers in a 2019 study published in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth among pregnant and breastfeeding women in Northwest Ethiopia discovered that pregnant and breastfeeding women bear the highest burden of this deficiency due to heightened physiological demands for iron and vitamin A. These demands increase significantly during pregnancy to meet fetal needs and continue during lactation to support breastfeeding.

The 2020 report on Developments in Nutrition among 204 countries and territories for 30 years since 1990 highlights the substantial impact of dietary iron deficiency and vitamin A deficiency on women of reproductive age in low- and middle-income countries across Africa and Asia. These micronutrient deficiencies are of paramount concern in public health nutrition due to their adverse effects.

A 2022 study published in The Lancet Global Health reveals that progress in addressing anemia among women of reproductive age (15–49 years) is inadequate to achieve the World Health Assembly’s global nutrition target of reducing anemia prevalence by 50% by 2030 in low- and middle-income countries, including Uganda.

Breastfeeding mothers require a higher intake of iron, ranging from 10–30 mg/day, compared to 8 mg/day for adult males. To help meet this increased need, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends iron supplementation programs during the postpartum period, starting immediately after delivery and continuing for the first 6 weeks.

On the other hand, the WHO advises against vitamin A supplementation during the postpartum period, as it offers no noticeable health benefits to either the mother or the infant. Instead, it encourages breastfeeding mothers to maintain a diversified diet that includes vitamin A-rich foods. However, it’s important to highlight that supplementing with vitamin A and iron during this time could enhance the content of these nutrients in breast milk.

In rural Uganda, breastfeeding mothers often face deficiencies in vital nutrients particularly vitamin A and iron. This is as a result of over reliance on plant-based local foods, like sweet potato and non-iron biofortified common bean like Nambale, which lack sufficient amounts of provitamin A and iron, respectively.

To improve vitamin A and iron intake among breastfeeding mothers, Uganda’s government, in collaboration with HarvestPlus, a global program dedicated to ending hunger through providing nutrient-rich foods launched biofortification programs. These initiatives introduced orange-fleshed sweet potato rich in provitamin A and iron-biofortified common bean as staple food in Uganda.

As part of his postdoctoral study, Dr. Edward Buzigi, a Nutritionist and Food security expert, at University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, evaluated the perceptions and sensory acceptability of a dish made from a combination of orange-fleshed sweet potato and iron-biofortified common bean, known for their high levels of provitamin A carotenoids and iron.

The aim was to determine whether the test food could replace the traditional white-fleshed sweet potato and non-iron biofortified common beans, which lacks these essential nutrients.

Ninety-four breastfeeding mothers took part in the study comparing two foods. Participants assessed the taste, color, aroma, texture, and overall acceptability of both the test and control foods using a five-point scale. Ratings ranged from “dislike very much” to “like very much,” with attributes deemed acceptable if participants rated them as “like” or “like very much.”

Also, focus group discussions were held to explore participants’ thoughts on future consumption of the test food alongside statistical analysis done using the chi-square test to compare sensory attributes between the two food options, while the qualitative data from focus group discussions were analyzed using thematic analysis.

Findings revealed that taste, color, and aroma were satisfactory to the mothers and showed no significant difference between test food and control food. Mothers had favorable views of the taste, aroma, and color of orange-fleshed sweet potato and iron-biofortified common bean but expressed concerns about the soft texture of orange-fleshed sweet potato. Despite this, breastfeeding mothers expressed positive attitudes towards consuming orange-fleshed sweet potato and iron-biofortified common bean, as long as it was accessible, affordable, and easy to prepare.

Dr. Buzigi lecturers at the Department of Community Health and Behavioural Sciences at Makerere University School of Public Health in Uganda.

Read the scientific article here;  https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/fsn3.4053

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Call for Applications: AWE Change Masters fellowship programme support

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L-R: The Departments of Family Medicine (School of Medicine) and Human Anatomy (School of Biomedical Sciences) Buildings, College of Health Sciences (CHS), Mulago Hill, Makerere University, Kampala Uganda, East Africa.

Makerere University College of Health Sciences in collaboration with Duke University, USA are conducting a national collaborative research study on Epilepsy with local leading researchers in the fields of neurology and psychology in Uganda and international experts in the field of neurology and neurosurgery in the USA. The study aims to investigate the panorama of epilepsy in Uganda across the life span by clinically characterizing its features, comorbidities, and risk factors among the general population, with a focus on stigma among adolescents.

Applications are invited for the AWE Change Masters fellowship programme support from postgraduate students of:

  • Makerere University College of Health Sciences
  • Mbarara University of Science and Technology
  • Gulu University

The closing date for the receipt of applications is 22nd May 2024.

Submit all Enquiries and Applications to awechangeproject@gmail.com

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