The East African Community Conference on Health and Research

(By Logan)

A couple of months after our family arrived at Kibuye last fall, the team received an important email from the rector of Hope Africa University. 

He informed us that there was going to be an international medical conference in the spring hosted by the East Africa Community Commission on Health and Research. This was apparently a large annual conference that was held in a different East African country each year (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan). This year was Burundi’s turn to host and the university wanted a strong showing at the conference.  If there was any way possible we should try to submit a proposal that we could present at the conference. There was only one problem: we found all this out only 2 days before the deadline for abstract submissions. 

However, it seemed like there was precious little time to dedicate to writing up abstract proposals for a medical conference that none of us were really familiar with. Everyone was engrossed in full-time work at the hospital. 

Everyone, that is, except me. 

I had not yet started full-time at the hospital, while I adjusted to life in Burundi and studied the local language of Kirundi. Of course, I had also not participated in any research whatsoever in Burundi. 

After letting the team know that I was willing to help expediently write some abstract proposals (OK, it’s possible I used the phrase “throw something together”), I learned that there were some possible submission ideas already on the team. Working feverishly, along with Eric and Alyssa, we submitted two applications, squeaking them in just under the deadline. 

With that off my plate, I promptly forgot all about it. 

For about the next 4 months that is. To be more precise: until 3 weeks prior to the conference. That is when I found out that our proposals had actually been accepted as poster presentations. That meant that I had less than 3 weeks to make all the arrangements to attend the conference in Bujumbura, turn the hastily prepared abstracts into professional appearing academic posters, and then figure out how to even get a poster made in rural Burundi. 

With a lot of help from Eric, Alyssa, and even a colleague from Cox FMR the posters came together. I found out that one of the lab techs at Kibuye Hope Hospital knew a guy who could make the poster in nearby Gitega. About a week before the conference, I entrusted to him the USB drive that contained pdf’s of the posters. And then I waited.

And waited.

Each day for that next week I would stop by the lab and check with him on how the posters were coming along. He assured me they were being made and I would have them before the conference. Finally, on the night before the conference, at 7:30pm, the posters arrived via motorcycle taxi. With fold-creases and just a little mud splashed on them, they certainly had the appearance that they had just arrived by motorcycle taxi. But with enough pressing and a warm wash cloth the wrinkles and mud stains came out.

I made it to the conference and started to put up the posters in the poster area, which was actually an area outside under a breezeway by which people would pass during breaks. As I was working, I was standing on the carpet in the middle of the aisle, checking to make sure the poster was level, when an employee came over to me and said, “Excuse me, you can’t stand here, the President is walking here.”

“Oh! I’m so sorry!” I said, jumping back quickly and looking around. But then I got confused because there was literally no one around.

I looked back at the employee, trying to understand. “Ohhhh! I get it!” I thought out loud. “You mean, that, like, at some point in the future, the President WILL walk on this carpet, so I should get off of it now… Ummm.  Right!  Of course! No problem.”

The conference got underway, and the President did in fact walk on that carpet. There were many opening speeches by many dignitaries in the East African Community, including the U.S. Ambassador to Burundi as well as His Excellency the President himself. 

Alyssa and Sonia, one of our Burundian colleagues at Kibuye, were also able to come down to Bujumbura to attend the conference and present the new Kibuye NICU design as an example of low-tech and low-resource techniques to help decrease neonatal mortality.  

The theme of the conference was “Outbreaks, Epidemics, and Antimicrobial Resistance”. There were some interesting presentations ranging from efforts to limit the purchase of over-the-counter antibiotics to the demonstration of antimicrobial resistance from cultures of hospital cockroaches. It was especially interesting to see the antibiotic sensitivities presented in regards to the common antibiotics that we use at Kibuye since we don’t actually have the ability to do microbiology cultures. But at the same time it was quite alarming, because we could see just how much resistance is developing to these common drugs, even though they are often the only option we have available.

Overall, this was a good opportunity to share our work with the East African Community, as well as learn from and be inspired by what some of the larger hospitals and medical schools are doing in this part of Africa. I’m not sure where the conference will be held next year, but I think it would be worth attending again. As long as I’m not “pulling it together” at the eleventh hour.

(the cockroach abstract, for those interested...)

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