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Uganda Program Focuses on Public Health and Community

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Ten University of Vermont students will get hands-on public health experience this summer when they travel to Uganda to work and study in the rural village of Kamuli, about three hours north of the capital, Kampala. They will pick up where UVM nursing students left off, working directly with community members on projects that improve public health and promote sustainable practices.

“Kamuli has many of the rural health problems and farms that we have in rural Vermont. It’s a great comparison for students,” says Sarah E. Abrams, Ph.D., R.N., who has taught undergraduate travel courses and conducted research in the area for several years. She is teaching the three-credit UVM course, Uganda: Health and Community in Rural Uganda (HLTH 295), scheduled for May and June 2014.

The course is designed for students from a wide variety of academic disciplines who want to explore global health issues and overseas development work.

“The goal for the summer program is to get students from different backgrounds helping with research and getting to know what it takes to make a program sustainable,” says Abrams, associate professor and associate dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences. “We will be looking at how the health of the community is affected by agriculture and the changing environment, by the economy, and by both the health care delivery system and the social structure.”

Students will work with Abrams on her ongoing “community participatory action research,” called as such because it promotes local empowerment. Students won’t tell Kamuli residents what to do; instead, villagers will gather data and decide what steps to take, and students will chip in as needed.

“Ultimately, what I want to happen is to work with the people of Kamuli on what they need, what they want, what’s lacking, and help them get to a better state of health and well-being from what they currently have,” Abrams says.

Through her research, she works closely with two non-governmental organizations (NGOs): the Vermont-based 52 Kids Foundation, which provides education and services to orphans, and Uganda’s Kamuli Area People’s Integral Development Association (KAPIDA).

“The partnerships with community members are really important to sustaining the efforts and building something the community owns that won’t go away when I leave,” Abrams explains. “From working with the community and working with an NGO in this area, we hope to resolve some of the basic issues of health.”

This summer, students will learn the ways in which water and sanitation, nutrition and air quality all have an impact on human health, especially disease.

“They will build fuel-efficient stoves to help women’s respiratory systems and also protect children from accidental injuries,” Abrams says. “The rural Ugandan women traditionally cook on an open fire, and they deforest their own properties to provide wood. The fuel-efficient stoves use charcoal. Because of how the stoves are built, they burn longer and they are vented outside, so that’s better for women’s lungs, preventing asthma and pulmonary diseases.”

The students also will learn about Kamuli’s lack of access to clean water; villagers must travel miles each day to government-built bore holes, which have been drilled and installed with a pump. “The children pump the water and then they carry it back,” she says. “That takes up to seven hours a day, so there are places where people still use groundwater, which is contaminated.”

Students will dig latrines to improve sanitation; in the past, they have created pits for composting. The compost boosts crops such as corn, squash and beans; as subsistence farmers, each family provides food for itself.

“We’re a great motivating factor,” Abrams says. “If you can get 10 students to help build these things, it can go much more quickly.”

Overall, the Uganda trip will help students “become more comfortable in examining culture and what effects culture has on health care,” she says. “The students get to understand what people’s health is like in sub-Saharan Africa; they learn about cooperation and international development; they get much more sensitive about cultural competency. What I stress to them is that the systems here in the United States work for here, not necessarily for Uganda. Maybe the Ugandans don’t have everything we do, but they do a pretty good job nonetheless.”

Whether they end up working overseas or in rural Vermont, the students who travel to Uganda will learn lifelong skills. “What is critical to me, regardless of whether it’s in Vermont or Africa,” Abrams says, “is the willingness to take people where they are, value them, and work with them as a community.”

For more information about the Health and Community in Rural Uganda travel study program at UVM, visit