Infection preventionists Heather Saunders and Stephanie Mayoryk's journey to East Africa emphasizes the positive impact of infection prevention efforts in low-income countries. Despite challenges, their experience encourages IPs to engage globally, fostering hope and passion for providing excellent patient care.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “communicable diseases, including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), malaria, viral hepatitis, sexually transmitted infections and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), are among the leading causes of death and disability in low-income countries and marginalized populations.”1 Infection prevention (IP) and control in health care and community settings is essential for reducing preventable morbidity and mortality from communicable diseases globally. Infection Control Today (ICT) contributor Heather Saunders, MPH, RN, CIC, and Stephanie Mayoryk, MAS, BSN, RN, CIC, were offered an opportunity to become IP consultants to a network of remote ambulatory clinics in East Africa. In this article, Saunders and Mayoryk answer questions they have been asked by other ICT and other infection preventionists about their experiences, strategies, and insights from the trip.
ICT: Explain how you got the opportunity to travel to Africa and what made you want to participate in the trip.
Heather Saunders, MPH, RN, CIC: In 2008, I had the opportunity to spend 10 weeks in East Africa as an intern with an organization I hold in high regard, Missions of Hope International. That experience opened doors to future opportunities in global health and sparked my desire to pursue a career in IP and my master’s degree in international public health. Over the years, I’ve become deeply passionate about improving the global infrastructure of health care and preventing communicable diseases. When I received a call from a colleague earlier this year asking if I’d be interested in partnering with medical clinics I’d been previously acquainted with in East Africa, I jumped at the opportunity to use my expertise in IP to support ongoing efforts at the clinics.
Stephanie Mayoryk, MAS, BSN, RN, CIC: I have always wanted to use my IP expertise globally. However, raising my 2 children and transitioning into rigorous IP program management roles made international work seem improbable. When I started my consulting business in 2018, I realized that pursuing additional learning and opportunities outside the United States would be feasible. Heather asked me in late spring 2023, whether I’d ever consider an international trip. I shared my desire but noted how life and work priorities always moved this to the back burner. She put me in touch with the team’s medical lead, and we chatted. I was thrilled to receive a formal invite!
ICT: What were you asked to contribute, and what were your deliverables?
HS: When we initially spoke to the clinic administrator, who had requested our visit, we were asked to provide education on IP and control. However, we knew we needed to understand the clinics’ capacity, capability, and needs better before developing an education plan. After several virtual meetings, we all agreed on a plan to assess the network’s 4 ambulatory clinic locations for opportunities to improve infection prevention. Additionally, we would provide general IP education to community health volunteers partnered with the clinics. This education would focus on the chain of infection and hand hygiene. We would also allow time for structured focus groups to better understand community health needs. Using the existing assessment tools from WHO, the United Nations, the CDC, and other organizations, we developed a tool tailored to assess low-resource health care settings. Our assessments focused on hand hygiene and standard precautions, cleaning and disinfection, instrument reprocessing, waste management, safe injection practices, and preventing specific infectious diseases.
SM: We prepared a summary report that focused on those core components. Each section began by noting the strengths observed in overall infrastructure and work practices. Opportunities for improvement from our direct observations were described, and pictures were often included. Each section ended with supportive references and links to national and international public health guidelines and regulations.
We are also developing education tools for patient education by the community health volunteers. The volunteers highlighted the need for specific patient education material and gave us a list of their priority infectious disease concerns (eg, brucellosis, malaria, TB,
HIV/STIs, rabies etc). These tools will highlight feasible individual and community prevention strategies for the region based on their current resources.
ICT: What were your findings and recommendations?
HS: The basics of IP are essential no matter where you go. It’s important to remember this when conducting assessments in low-resource health care settings. Focusing on improving the basics can significantly affect IP and control. We performed numerous clinical observations of foundational infection control practices such as hand hygiene, injection safety, and personal protective equipment (PPE) use. We identified opportunities in all these areas, working with the clinic administrator to determine the next steps in addressing opportunities for improvement.
SM: We spent significant time assessing TB prevention and control infrastructure. A lack of environmental controls and respiratory protection was observed. We discussed the feasibility of outdoor specimen collection and outdoor directly observed therapy home visits with clinic leadership. We were invited to enter village homes and quickly recognized the lack of airflow and likely high concentrations of droplet nuclei because traditional village homes are made of cow dung, and windows were uncommon.
Before sharing specific recommendations, it was essential to ensure that our primary reference source was predominantly the Ministry of Health guidance. We noted some significant differences in these guidelines compared with the US for instrument reprocessing and high-level disinfection [HLD]. We had to familiarize ourselves with a decontamination soaking step before manual cleaning and HLD. We could not assume the US guidelines would meet local regulations.
ICT: Describe any challenges you experienced during the assessment process. Were there surprises?
HS: When conducting assessments in low-resource settings, capacity and capability must be considered first. Availability of resources and unstable health care infrastructures are often barriers to improving infection prevention. Instead of quickly jumping to providing a solution, we tried to better understand driving factors. For example, it was noted upon assessment that access to hand hygiene products was lacking. However, before recommending to the clinics that they increase their access to hand sanitizer, we first sought to determine their capacity for expanding that access. In many regions of the world, hand sanitizer is not available as a pre-packaged product, requiring clinics to buy ingredients and make hand sanitizer on-site. In this case, we found that hand sanitizer was readily available. However, many other recommendations would require brainstorming with clinic staff to determine what was feasible given available resources.
Sometimes, though, the driving factor is simple compliance. I always find it surprising how much health care worker compliance is a challenge no matter what part of the world I’m in. In one instance, during our assessment, single-use vials were observed being reused. When conducting interviews to better understand the driving factors behind this practice, a clinic pharmacist stated, “The staff know they’re not supposed to use these more than 1 time. They just need to be reminded.”
SM: I was surprised at how the team was able to communicate amid language barriers and cultural differences. We had opportunities to participate in several community gatherings, which allowed us to recognize the community’s passion for song and dance. We tailored our training approach to incorporate singing and dancing into hand hygiene education and return demonstration exercises. We observed that the community’s cultural norm for health education occurs through community talks. These talks occur outside, under the canopy of large acacia trees. We decided to move our sessions with the community health volunteers to this setting. This provided a casual, familiar atmosphere and promoted honest dialogue regarding community challenges and infectious disease risks.
ICT: How might infection preventionists interested in international health find opportunities to participate and support ongoing work?
HS: For those interested in becoming involved in international health
and development, I recommend first networking with those already working in the field. Look to well-established, reputable organizations that align with your goals and values. Learn more about the strategic priorities of global health and development and determine what organizations are taking steps toward those goals. As with many other specialties, beginning with volunteer work and short-term assignments is a great way to gain experience in the field.
SM: Because this was my first international experience, I defer to Heather on how best to pursue these opportunities. I am grateful she provided me with that networking connection to make my first trip possible.
However, I’ll share some key attributes and learnings that summarized my experience:
Beginning in January, Saunders and Mayoryk are holding monthly meetings with the leadership for the chain of clinics they visited in October. During their meetings, they’ve been collaboratively discussing their findings and next steps toward implementing improvements in infection prevention and control.
Currently, they're assisting the clinics with the prioritization of high-risk findings and implementation of best practice changes. They’re also currently developing educational materials for community health promoters to help address some of the ongoing educational needs identified during their visit and these follow-up meetings.
They look forward to developing their continued partnership with the clinics, opening the door for additional opportunities in the future to join hands with others working to improve infection prevention and control in low-income communities.
Our work: communicable and noncommunicable diseases, and mental health. World Health Organization. Accessed January 2, 2024. https://www.who.int/our-work/communicable-and-noncommunicable-diseases-and-mental-health