UMN Collaboration in Kenya Shifts to Support COVID-19 Response on Remote Island

December 21, 2022
Image of a woman wearing a mask administering a vaccine to a man sitting down wearing a mask.
Staff and community opinion leaders at the Ekialo Kiona Center publicly receive first doses of COVID-19 Vaccine to promote community uptake on Mfangano Island, August 2021. Photo: Brian J. Mattah

Among the many disruptions generated by COVID-19 for rural communities around the world, community-based research reliant on international collaboration and face-to-face interactions has been greatly tested.

In a recent report in the Journal of Global Health Reports, researchers from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and other University of Minnesota departments provide an example of how community-based research collaborations can use embedded networks to adapt their responses to unexpected public health threats. 

The report focuses on the Mfangano Community Health Field Station, a training and research collaboration among the University of Minnesota, Maseno University in Kenya, and Ekialo Kiona (EK) Center on Mfangano Island—situated in the eastern part of Lake Victoria about 10 miles off the coast of Kenya. 

Since 2010, the collaborators have implemented a series of health, agriculture, and livelihood interventions on Mfangano Island, home to about 30,000 people, alongside longitudinal community-based research. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolved in 2020, the collaborators adapted their priorities and strategies in real time to initiate a community-led COVID-19 awareness and vaccination campaign for the island’s remote communities.

Through a dynamic participatory process, the group identified and implemented three effective COVID-19 community engagement strategies:

  • Factsheets in local languages for local distribution at high-frequency meeting points
  • Vernacular radio programming on a popular local radio station
  • Targeted vaccine promotion among key community opinion leaders

“The Mfangano Community Health Field Station continues to expand opportunities for American and Kenyan global health students to partner with Mfangano communities to build capacity to promote and protect the health of these vulnerable populations, and respond creatively to unexpected health challenges,” said co-author Charles Salmen, M.D., an assistant professor in the department of family medicine in the U of M Medical School and the director for community engagement at the Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility, which leads efforts at Mfangano within the U of M.

Map of Lake Victoria showing the location of Mfangano Island
Map of Lake Victoria showing the location of Mfangano Island. Courtesy OHR

“While our experience on Mfangano may not apply broadly to all rural populations in sub-Saharan Africa, we believe our group’s experience responding to COVID-19 in western Kenya provides insights and lessons that could be selectively adapted and incorporated by other place-based research enterprises facing unanticipated public health threats,” Salmen added.

The multi-layered campaign, led by local Kenyan staff with remote support from graduate students at the  U of M's Humphrey School, the School of Public Health, and Maseno University, demonstrates that amid ongoing disruptions created by a pandemic, there exists both a responsibility to respond to evolving community needs and an opportunity to remodel global health partnerships for improved equity and long-term impact.

The program also highlighted the impact of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural collaboration. To respond to the evolving COVID-19 challenges, the team harnessed the lived experience and leadership of local Kenyan health workers and community radio presenters, the talents of public health and medical students at Maseno University, the analytical and public health expertise at the U of M, and the creativity and program design skills of the Humphrey School’s Master of Development Practice (MDP) students.

“The public health students developed weekly bulletins on various topics related to the coronavirus, and we adapted some of their information for the radio programs,” said Aimee Carlson, one of the MDP students who worked on the project. “A public health student from Maseno University reviewed our radio content to make sure we provided accurate information and weren’t spreading rumors.” 

Carlson and another MDP student virtually trained the radio presenters on how to develop the radio content, find reliable resources, and create graphics for social media to engage the audience.

“The pandemic context underscores the value of meaningful relationships, the critical need for collaboration across different ways of knowing and working, and the importance of engaging challenges with an adaptive mindset,” said David Wilsey, director of the Master of Development Practice program. 

“As global health partnerships around the world are likely to be tested in the future, from recurrent COVID surges and other emerging public health threats, this partnership asserts that it is critical to continue to reexamine how we can harness these experiences to resharpen organizational focus, eliminate unnecessary and vestigial decision structures, and meet the moment for communities in need,” said Salmen.

The COVID-19 response described in this study was supported by funding from Organic Health Response, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Improving Chances Foundation, and the Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility.