Australia Awards alumna fights at the forefront of COVID-19

The existential threat of COVID-19 to humanity is real with every part of the world affected. Kenya and the rest of Africa are no exception and are working quickly to enforce stringent measures to instil radical change in behaviour to contain the virus. Australia Awards alumna Dr Asma Awadh, a Medical Doctor and Head of the COVID-19 Response Team in charge of Westlands sub-county, Nairobi, is on a mission to combat the spread of the virus.

“Cutting down virus transmission to overcome the pandemic with the least number of deaths and infections is a key to slowing the spread of COVID-19,” says Dr Asma. “Health care providers, administrative authorities, and the general public are all important players in the fight against this virus which spreads quickly and widely.”

Dr Asma completed a Master of International Public Health and Master of Health Management at the University of New South Wales in 2016. While studying, she gained valuable knowledge and skills about infection disease intelligence, emergency preparedness and evacuation procedures.

“My experience and studies in Australia shaped me into who I am today,” says Dr Asma. “My studies in International Public Health positioned me to be a strong leader in the response to this ongoing pandemic in my home country.”

Dr Asma is leading the 12 health workers on the response team who are operating at the frontline of COVID-19 in Westlands region, Kenya. The team includes public health officers, clinical officers, a counsellor, a public health nurse, and several other nurses. Every day, Dr Asma ensures environmental disinfection in Westlands, supervises the team’s visits to quarantine sites, supervises the monitoring of symptoms and offers psychosocial support to those quarantined. Her typical day starts with a call from the Ministry of Health to discuss how to respond to suspected cases and emerging issues.

“I’m also responsible for ensuring that training and sensitising on COVID-19 cascades to health care providers in health care facilities and through the community. This ensures that everyone is equipped to apply infection prevention controls measures,” says Dr Asma.

“Fifty health facilities report to the sub-county, including public, private and faith-based health ones. Twenty have already been trained and we’re using a system of ‘training the trainers’ to reach the others,” says Dr Asma. “I’m on call 24 hours to filter people who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 and assist with the smooth evacuation of those who need to be isolated or quarantined.”

Collaboration is critical, and Dr Asma spends a great deal of time working closely with a diverse range of other actors, including the energy sector, private organisations, hospitals and media. “All these actors must be involved in sensitisation sessions on COVID-19 and infection prevention and control measures,” says Dr Asma.

The value of her Australian education and scholarship enrichment activities are not lost on Dr Asma. Her mentorship and internship in disease surveillance at the National Health and Medical Research Council’s Centre for Research Excellence, Integrated Systems for Epidemic Response, at the University of New South Wales is proving especially valuable with her important work on the COVID-19 crisis. While at the Centre, Dr Asma developed a deep knowledge of systems research and collaboration, which are both critical components in responding to epidemics and pandemics.

“I’m proud of my supervisor, Professor Raina MacIntyre, who mentored me in epidemiology research and leadership at the university. Little did I know at the time, but the sense of confidence she instilled in me while in Australia would prove invaluable in my current work on planning and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr Asma.

As well as passing on technical knowledge in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, Dr Asma is advising frontline medical personnel to stay safe, observe all precaution measures and improve infection prevention and control measures.

“We can only overcome this pandemic by working as ‘one people’, learning from each other and following advice from the experts in government.  The general public plays an important role. Please stay at home, practice social distancing and, most importantly, wash your hands often and observe other hygiene measures going forward so we win this war,” says Dr Asma.

Photo Credit: Dr Asma Awadh

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