Certified Lifesaver

Ellon Mabaasa, a nursing officer in southwest Uganda, presents a certificate to Lawrence and Edinah for their dedication to their family’s health.

Savannah Russo/EGPAF

Ellon Mabaasa, sees nursing as a calling.

“I wanted to be a nurse to help the sick and helpless and to work in a job helping those who cannot help themselves,” said Mabaasa, who has been a Ministry of Health nursing officer in southwestern Uganda for the past 10 years.

Most days at the Rwashameire Health Clinic, Mabaasa empathetically attends to patients dealing with emergencies, ranging from broken legs to malaria to AIDS. She looks forward to those moments when she is able to work with clients who have come to the clinic to take care of their health before they have an emergency.

During the first week of August, Mabaasa and her fellow health workers were able to engage in preemptive health measures when they staffed a Wellness Campaign. Health workers throughout Ntungamo District inviting the community to visit their local health facilities for a range of free services, including health education, HIV testing and counseling, family planning, and cervical cancer screening.

The campaign was supported by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) and its consortium partners, the Mayanja Memorial Hospital Foundation and the Uganda Health Marketing Group. Other partners included the Uganda Ministry of Health; district political leaders; Kisoro Hospital; Marie Stopes Uganda, which provides voluntary family planning; and Hospice Africa Uganda, which provides palliative care to people living with HIV and cancer.

“The Wellness Campaign is important. You can see [clients] are coming in big numbers. They want to know [about their health],” Mabaasa explained.

A major focus of the campaign was testing men and women together for HIV. Couples who did so received a certificate recognizing their dedication to their health. Engaging men in their health and the health of their families is a continuing challenge for health workers in Uganda. Traditionally women visit health facilities alone. But through activities like the Wellness Campaign, health workers are establishing new traditions.

“The services were well targeted during the campaign … making it very possible and exciting for men to come for specific services,” said Abel Magezi, a community linkages officer for EGPAF-Uganda.

Lawrence, 28, and Edinah, 26, came to the Rwashameire Health Center together. Lawrence explained that he had come to support his wife, who wanted to be tested for cervical cancer. But while they were at the clinic, both were also tested for HIV. This was not the first time that they have been tested together; as the parents of two young children they value the health of their family. Edinah said that she is proud to be married to a man who accompanies her to the clinic, and Lawrence boasted that he is a health ambassador to his male friends.

The HIV test results for Lawrence and Edinah came back negative. But that is not always the case. During those challenging moments when Mabaasa delivered positive results, she exhibited compassion and confidentiality, counseling her clients about treatment and ensure that they enroll in vital services.

“Counseling helps you prepare for the drugs or services that will be provided to you,” said Magezi. “You are told you are HIV-positive … counseling helps with issues of acceptance and you can move with the diagnosis. This also helps with adherence and retention.”

By the end of the Wellness Campaign, Mabaasa and her colleagues had tested and counseled 2,270 clients, and they had given out hundreds of certificates to couples who had been tested together.

“I am happy that many people were helped, including those who were found to have cancer and were able to seek treatment when it was still early,” said Dan Mugisha, a program officer with EGPAF-Uganda.

Although it was an exhausting week for Mabaasa and her colleagues—it was also a week that certainly slowed the spread of HIV in Ntungamo district, provided lifesaving cancer screenings and bolstered the involvement of local men in family health.

Campaign centered outreach is an integral part of EGPAF-Uganda programs. During the upcoming holiday season, an Ariel Campaign, focused on providing psychosocial support to HIV-positive adolescence, will take place. This is one of many funded campaigns that provide much needed healthcare services to the Southwest region of Uganda.

EGPAF has worked in Uganda since 2000. Today, in collaboration with the Uganda National AIDS Control Program and the Ministry of Health, EGPAF is increasing access to a broad range of comprehensive quality HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis services for children, women, and families at 184 health facilities in the southwestern region. With assistance of EGPAF, health workers like Ellon have tested more than 2 million pregnant women for HIV and provided more than 2.5 million women with services to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Savannah Russo is a Global Health Corps fellow working at EGPAF-Uganda as the research and documentation officer. She received her master’s degree in International Studies and a graduate certificate in Women’s Studies from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She has previously worked on women’s development programs in Rwanda, South Africa, and Haiti.