News Release

UMN collaboration in Kenya shifts to support COVID-19 response on Mfangano Island

Image of a woman wearing a mask administering a vaccine to a man sitting down with 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 Credit: 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, University of Minnesota researchers and colleagues provide an example of how community-based research collaborations can utilize embedded networks to develop adaptive responses to unexpected public health threats. 

The Mfangano Community Health Field Station represents a training and research collaboration between the University of Minnesota in the United States, Maseno University in Kenya and Ekialo Kiona (EK) Center on Mfangano Island. Since 2010, this collaboration has implemented a series of health, agriculture and livelihood interventions on Mfangano Island alongside longitudinal community-based research. As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolved, the collaboration 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.

The group collaboratively identified and implemented three effective COVID-19 community engagement strategies including:

  • 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. “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.”

The multi-layered campaign, led by local Kenyan staff with remote support from graduate students at Maseno University and the U of M’s School of Public Health and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, 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. In order to effectively and efficiently 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 students.

“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 in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.  

“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.

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About the Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility

The Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility advances health world-wide through collaborative partnerships, sustainable programs, and academic excellence in a socially responsible, equitable way. The center supports global health research and works with global partners to build capacity for ensuring the health of their communities in the long term. 

About the Office of Academic Clinical Affairs

The Office of Academic Clinical Affairs is reimagining health by driving innovation and discovery through collaborations across the University of Minnesota, advancing interprofessional care and training, and being a strong partner to the state, industry and community.

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