March 19, 2021

UCalgary launches health initiative in Uganda with longtime global health partner

Partnership meets emerging adolescent health needs during COVID-19 pandemic
Ugandan youth
Ugandan youth gather at a pre-COVID event Healthy Child Uganda

The University of Calgary is once again working with its global health partner, Mbarara University of Science and Technology. This latest project addresses the needs of young people including physical, mental and sexual reproductive health needs. 

Data shows there is a need to address these issues. The adolescent birth rate in Uganda is high — nearly three and a half times what it is in Canada. According to the 2016 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey, 25 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 years old had given birth or were pregnant. Gender-based violence is a concern as well — 42 per cent of women age 15 to 19 have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence at the hands of their spouse/partner.

These are our children, friends of our children, our sisters and our brothers who are facing difficult circumstances; we are highly motivated to improve the lives of young people in our communities. 

The Cumming School of Medicine’s (CSM) work with Healthy Child Uganda has focused on improving maternal, newborn and child health. The circumstances created by COVID-19 restrictions have amplified the need for an adolescent health initiative to address critical needs of both male and female youth.

The new initiative, called Healthy Adolescents and Young People (HAY!), focuses on district and national health priorities in three southwestern Uganda districts: Bushenyi, Rubirizi and Ntungumo. It focuses on young people aged 10 to 24 years and includes challenging topics like family planning, gender-based violence, menstrual health and hygiene, HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, and addictions.

“We are thrilled for this new opportunity to equip an incredible network of more than 3,000 village health team members, and hundreds of health providers and managers to support the unique health needs of adolescents in their communities,” says Dr. Jenn Brenner, MD, director of global maternal and child health at the Indigenous, Local and Global Health Office (ILGH) at the CSM.

COVID-19 significantly changes home, school and work

As in Canada, the daily routines of families in Uganda have been altered by school closures and the shutdown of workplaces, leading to unemployment. There is concern over the physical and mental health of Ugandan youth, and the disproportionate way people in vulnerable settings are affected by the pandemic and its restrictions.

Due to the lockdown and school closures in Uganda, there has been a mass migration of young people returning home to rural communities from urban centres. Participants in HAY! discussion groups share concerns about lack of access for young people to family planning services, increasing family tensions and violence in households, and increased rates of teenage pregnancy, mental health problems and risky behaviour.

“We will work to support adolescents during this difficult time to make informed decisions about their health in a safe and respectful environment. We want to empower youth by providing a platform for them to co-create innovative solutions for the challenges they face,” says Teddy Kyomuhangi, program manager, Healthy Child Uganda.

As local situations evolve alongside the evolution of COVID-19, the HAY! team will assess its programming to support youth in rural communities to determine if adjustments are required.

Building on the best practices of Mama Toto

MamaToto, a maternal and newborn health initiative implemented by Healthy Child Uganda between 2012 and 2015, laid a solid framework for community engagement and health promotion in southwest Uganda. The new HAY! initiative will further strengthen the health system based on priorities defined by local people addressing opportunities at the community, health facility and district levels. A strong network of volunteer Village Health Team workers, selected by communities themselves and trained during MamaToto will support adolescents and their families through home visits and the organization of community activities.

Although international travel is on hold for now, UCalgary students, faculty and staff involved in HAY! still have an opportunity to learn from global health partners and foster meaningful connections. “The long-standing respectful partnership with Healthy Child Uganda has created a solid foundation for HAY! We are really excited to continue co-creating innovative solutions with our partners and for the possibilities of this initiative,” says Heather MacIntosh, director, global health projects, ILGH.

Healthy Adolescents and Young People implementation is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.

Jenn Brenner is director of global maternal newborn child health, Department of Paediatrics, Alberta Children’s Hospital; clinical associate professor, Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), University of Calgary; director of global maternal and child health, Indigenous, Local and Global Health Office, CSM.

The Cumming School of Medicine's Indigenous, Local & Global Health Office works to create the future of health and social equity at home and abroad. The office is committed to collaborating with communities to promote engagement, advance equity, inform curriculum and research, and co-design initiatives for impact.

Healthy Child Uganda (HCU) is a partnership between Mbarara University of Science and Technology, the CSM’s Indigenous, Local and Global Health Office, the Ministry of Health Uganda, southwest Uganda districts Bushenyi, Rubirizi and Ntungumo, and the Canadian Paediatric Society. HCU works with national and district health planners, leaders, and communities themselves to develop, implement, and evaluate initiatives that strengthen health systems and improve health for mothers, babies, children and adolescents.