Story by Sarah Weihi
After almost a year of planning, I arrived in Kenya at the beginning of August 2021 to begin my co-op at the African Center for Community Investment in Health. Going abroad during the middle of a pandemic is challenging for various reasons and going to a country where vaccines are not easily accessible is especially challenging. Back home, people in the United States started talking about universal COVID-19 booster shots. Meanwhile, in Kenya, I heard very different stories. While in the United States, surplus vaccines were waiting for the vaccine hesitant to make the choice to accept them, in Kenya, government employees working in health care remained on the front lines of the pandemic, unable to get vaccinated due to supply shortages. It was incredibly frustrating and disheartening to hear stories from coworkers in Kenya about how they could not get vaccinated even though they wanted to, when I knew many people at home in the United States were refusing such a privilege.
Despite this frustration, our Kenyan coworkers never stopped pushing ahead with their work — whether it was COVID-19 related or not. The never-ending news cycle pushing out stories about COVID-19 has left many other important global health issues out of the conversation — depriving them of both the attention and resources needed to adequately address them. While the U.S. public health community talked of little else over the last two years, public health workers in Kenya, while concerned about COVID-19, continued focusing energy and resources on diseases like malaria and visceral leishmaniasis, which is 95% fatal if not treated. This focus is rooted in the needs of the communities here. When it comes to health care, nothing is more important than listening to the needs of the patient.
ACCIH was able to restart all activities this past summer despite COVID-19 restrictions. Our mobile clinics in very rural areas gave communities that do not normally have access to healthcare, a chance to be seen by a doctor and have their issues attended to. In August, three clinics were held at different remote locations over the course of three days. Over 1,400 people participated in health education forums and almost 800 people received medical treatment. By running these clinics and providing care for all ailments, no matter how small, ACCIH has built trust within the community. This trust is crucial in providing impactful and effective health care. Getting to participate in these community-based programs and seeing the trust that has been built between the health care system and the community over years was an incredible experience. It exemplified what I think public health and health care should look like. Even though health care is never perfect, in our mobile clinics, there was trust that allowed patients and providers to communicate clearly and figure out a care plan that worked best for everyone.
Community-based public health is and will continue to be key to getting through this and all future pandemics. While COVID-19 remains a pressing issue for all countries, it is important to remember that other health issues also deserve attention and resources. I learned so much by watching doctors and public health officials in Kenya listen to their communities and decide what needed attention based on personal interactions. I think that the public health and health care organizations in the United States can learn a lot from community-based organizations like ACCIH, which have continued their non-COVID-19 related work throughout the pandemic, despite low local vaccination rates. COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere — and while ensuring equitable distribution of vaccines is a crucial issue that must be addressed, we must also ensure that other important public health issues are not ignored.
The story is featured in VOL 7 ISSUE 2 SPRING 2023 (Print Edition).