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An injured field worker and unfair labor practices in research projects

Good day and bad day. Good news is that our field manager Paul invited all of us over for dinner at his home tonight. Katie (Masters student) is leaving on Sunday and he wanted to give her a good send off. His wife made us an excellent meal that I’m going to be sleeping off for the next week.

Earlier in the day, though, I was walking up to the office when I saw a couple of our staff outside looking troubled. I asked them what was up and they told me that Lucy, a survey worker who has done projects for me multiple times over the past few years, had just been assaulted by a local drunk while out working for me. He accused her of stealing his cell phone, she said that she didn’t know him at all and he punched her in the head.

People around grabbed him and were about to kill him when a police officer showed up and broke it all up. Apparently, the guy was bleeding profusely and was in terrible shape.

Lucy now suffers from a ruptured ear drum.

It’s doubly painful since she had stopped me early in the day to tell me that she needs to get a loan to help pay for her four kids’ school fees, which total $2800.00 per year. I can’t figure out where she gets the money. She only pulls a little more than half that working for me but the financial lives of people around here are far more complicated that one would normally assume. She’s a single mom.

Lucy works without a contract, only doing temporary work for whoever will hire her, and receives no benefits. Since she, and all of the other people who work around here, have no access to health insurance, I paid her medical bills since they would have taken nearly two weeks pay away from her. She was injured in a work capacity. There is no reason she should have to bear the financial impact of an event which would have not otherwise occurred.

Troubling, of course, is that this isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Lucy was lucky in that I know her quite well and happened to be around. Other people aren’t so fortunate.

Research projects have to start taking seriously the fact that they have human beings working for them. Labor practices by many research projects border on the deplorable, assuming that workers are disposable, uncomplaining and easily replaced. While the argument can be made that we are providing employment opportunities where none existed before, many of us seem uninterested in doing any sort of community development, or creating sustainable work opportunities for experienced and capable field workers.

If we don’t take care of our field workers, our projects can’t exist. Worse yet, it is unacceptable to stick to a double standard of providing generous benefits to nationals, while refusing similar benefits to the people on the ground who work day and night to collect our data for us.

The need to look for more than just malaria

I was just reading a comment in the new Journal of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene “After Malaria is controlled, what next?”

Fortunately for all of our jobs, there is little to worry about. Malaria, as a complex environmental/political/economic public health problem, won’t be controlled anytime soon. As there’s no indication that many sub-Saharan countries will effectively ameliorate their political problems and also no sign that, despite the “Rising Africa” narrative, African countries will develop in such a way that economic rewards will trickle down to the poorest of the poor, malaria transmission will continue unabated. This is a horribly unfortunate outcome for the people, particularly small children, who have to live with malaria in their daily lives.

In all of the places it occurs, malaria is merely a symptom of a greater political and economic failure.

Indeed, we really know less about the causes of suffering and death in the tropics than many believe. Even vital statistics of birth and death are unrecorded in many areas of the world, much less the accurate causes of disease and death. Some diagnoses, such as malaria, dengue fever, and typhoid fever, are often ascribed to patients’ illnesses without laboratory confirmation. Under the shadow of the umbrella of these diagnoses, other diseases are lurking. I have found significant incidences of spotted fever and typhus group rickettsioses and ehrlichiosis among series of diagnostic samples of patients suspected to have malaria, typhoid, and dengue in tropical geographic locations, where these rickettsial and ehrlichial diseases were previously not even considered by physicians to exist.4–8 Control of malaria or dengue would reveal the presence and magnitude of other currently hidden diseases and stimulate studies to identify the etiologic agents.

This is the problem with our public health fascination with malaria. We are missing all of the other pathogens and conditions which case untold suffering in the poorest and most isolated communities. It can’t be the case that malaria acts in a box. In fact, it could be the case, that multiple pathogens coordinate their efforts to extract as many human biological and behavioral resources as possible to obtain maximum opportunities for reproduction and sustenance. A public health system only designed to look for and treat a limited window of diseases misses the opportunity to disrupt what is probably a vast ecological complex.

First, we have a problem of poor diagnostics. Facilities traditionally treat most fevers presumptively as malaria, dispensing drugs appropriate to that condition. However, conditions like dengue fever exhibit similar symptoms. While is it extremely likely that dengue is all over the African continent, particularly in urban areas, there is little ability to identify true dengue cases in the public health sector, and thus, in addition to mistreating patients, the extent of the disease burden is unknown. We cannot tackle large public health issues without proper data.

Second, we have the problem of all of the “known unknowns,” that is, we know for a fact that there’s more out there than we have data for but we also know (or at least I do) that there is a greater disease ecology out there. We know that many pathogens interact with one another for their mutual advantage or to haplessly effect significantly worse outcomes. The awful synergy of HIV and TB is just one example.

OK, I’m going to go and deal with my own pathogenic tenant which I think I’ve identified as an enteric pathogen of the genus Pseudomonas, which might have taken hold opportunistically through an influenza infection. This is complete speculation, however. Data quality issues prevent a reliable diagnosis!

On the way back from Kwale

Spent the week in Kwale, a sleepy town on near the Mombasa coast. The security situation prevents me from spending a whole lot of time there. I find this to be incredibly saddening but its unavoidable. Some people brave it out and stick with it, but I just can’t justify the awful risks.

The Japanese folks are mostly oblivious to it all, or maybe just indifferent. I’m convinced that they have no real concept of threat, given the relative safety of Japan itself. It’s a horribly dangerous situation but fortunately they stay locked inside. Japanese people love to sit at desks, even when they don’t really have to. Japan has yet to appropriate the concept of the mobile office. (Sorry, generalizations abound….)

I’ve caught some infection, but it’s hard to say exactly what it is. At first, it looked a lot like malaria, but then everything looks like malaria. Now, I’m just in a general state of not feeling well. It’s not responding to antibiotics, which makes me suspect that it’s not bacterial in nature. I started a round of ACTs just in case. They leave me a bit loopy, but I’m improving somewhat. A malaria test turned out faintly negative, but it’s possible the antibiotics are skewing the result or that the guy doing the test spilled to much assay onto the test. So, I’m not sure. I have a somewhat better appreciation for why the tests are treated with suspicion by the locals.

In any case, I feel like total hell, but thankfully have a normal appetite and digestion. I deeply crave red meat though, which leads me to suspect that the dizziness is anemia and thus, the cause could be malaria. This might be wishful thinking though. I could simply be exhausted.

Kenyatta is universally hated on the Coast, which explains a lot of the violence here. Though people apt to disregard domestic politics when talking of terrorism here, it’s hard to rule it out given the vast resentment toward the Jubilee party here on the coast. In fact, the lack of attention to security by the Kenyatta administration is likely fueling even more resentment, which might be fueling even more violence or at least, helping improve recruiting numbers for Al Shabab. As crazy as I think Luo politics are, Raila Odinga would have made a far better president.

People here are convinced that Kenyatta is a weed-head. “He is smoking the mari-ju-a-na.”

I spent the last two days convalescing in a hotel located within the Shimba Hills Nature Reserve. As much as I wanted to tough out the guest house in Kwale (which really isn’t so bad at all), I really needed a decent few hours of rest in a somewhat pleasant environment. It was worth it. A real hot shower and a set of clean sheets is worth the extra cash every now and again. The only wildlife to be seen were bush babies and squirrels, who seem to have worked out a deal where one begs for food in the day, and the other at night.

Malaria transmission here is low and it shows. Malaria endemic areas are characterized by low levels of education, part of which may be attributable to the inhibited cognitive development of children due to repeated malaria infections. Even if educational opportunities are available, kids in malaria endemic areas appear to have worse outcomes. It’s somewhat staggering at times, after having worked in Western. Part of it also could be the influence of Islam.

I’m now flying back to Nairobi where I’ll crawl into my bed. If I’m lucky, I’ll not come out for a few days.

(Mostly) Vindicated: Euclidean measures of distance are just as good as high priced, fancy measures

DistancePlotsITNIn my seminal paper, “Distance to health services influences insecticide-treated net possession and use among six to 59 month-old children in Malawi,” I indicated that Euclidean (straight line) measures of distance were just as good as more complicated, network based measures.

I didn’t include the graph showing how correlated the two were, but I wish I had and I can’t find it here my computer.

Every time I’ve done presentations of research of the association of distances to various things and health outcomes, someone inevitably asks why I didn’t use a more complex measure of actual travel paths. The idea is that no one walks in a straight line anywhere, but rather follows a road network, or even utilizes a number of transportation options which might be lost in a simple measure.

I always respond that a straight line distance is as good as any other when investigating relationships on a coarse scale. Inevitably, audiences are never convinced.

A new paper came out today, “Methods to measure potential spatial access to delivery care in low- and middle-income countries: a case study in rural Ghana” which compared the Euclidean measure with a number of more complex measurements.

The conclusion confirmed what I already knew, that the Euclidean measure is just as good in most cases, and the pain and cost of producing sexy and complicated ways of calculating distance just isn’t worth it.

It’s a pretty decent paper, but I wish they had put some graphs in to illustrate their points. It would be good to see exactly where the measures disagree.

Background
Access to skilled attendance at childbirth is crucial to reduce maternal and newborn mortality. Several different measures of geographic access are used concurrently in public health research, with the assumption that sophisticated methods are generally better. Most of the evidence for this assumption comes from methodological comparisons in high-income countries. We compare different measures of travel impedance in a case study in Ghana’s Brong Ahafo region to determine if straight-line distance can be an adequate proxy for access to delivery care in certain low- and middle-income country (LMIC) settings.

Methods
We created a geospatial database, mapping population location in both compounds and village centroids, service locations for all health facilities offering delivery care, land-cover and a detailed road network. Six different measures were used to calculate travel impedance to health facilities (straight-line distance, network distance, network travel time and raster travel time, the latter two both mechanized and non-mechanized). The measures were compared using Spearman rank correlation coefficients, absolute differences, and the percentage of the same facilities identified as closest. We used logistic regression with robust standard errors to model the association of the different measures with health facility use for delivery in 9,306 births.

Results
Non-mechanized measures were highly correlated with each other, and identified the same facilities as closest for approximately 80% of villages. Measures calculated from compounds identified the same closest facility as measures from village centroids for over 85% of births. For 90% of births, the aggregation error from using village centroids instead of compound locations was less than 35 minutes and less than 1.12 km. All non-mechanized measures showed an inverse association with facility use of similar magnitude, an approximately 67% reduction in odds of facility delivery per standard deviation increase in each measure (OR = 0.33).

Conclusion
Different data models and population locations produced comparable results in our case study, thus demonstrating that straight-line distance can be reasonably used as a proxy for potential spatial access in certain LMIC settings. The cost of obtaining individually geocoded population location and sophisticated measures of travel impedance should be weighed against the gain in accuracy.

Development as unfreedom….

Was reading Chris Blattman’s list of books that development people should read but don’t and found this in the Amazon description of “The Anti-Politics Machine: Development, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho.”

Development, it is generally assumed, is good and necessary, and in its name the West has intervened, implementing all manner of projects in the impoverished regions of the world. When these projects fail, as they do with astonishing regularity, they nonetheless produce a host of regular and unacknowledged effects, including the expansion of bureaucratic state power and the translation of the political realities of poverty and powerlessness into “technical” problems awaiting solution by “development” agencies and experts.

Note that I do not harbor any ill will toward development or even, as a general rule, “technical solutions.” Having been involved with bed net distributions and having watched the outcomes of reproductive health interventions, for example, I can say that there are many positive outcomes of development projects. In my area, fewer kids are dying and women are becoming pregnant a whole lot less, decreasing the risk of maternal mortality.

Disclaimers aside, there is no doubt that development projects often fail for a number of reasons, the first of which is that leaders have no interest in seeing that they succeed. While leaders are indifferent to the outcomes, they happily take on the power that comes with them, embracing bureaucratic reforms, which are mostly just expansions of power at all levels of government.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, except that African countries never embraced many of the protections of individual rights which restrict the powers of the state. Independence movements in much of Africa was predicated on an eventual return of power to the majority. Not many (none?) of these movements sought to protect the rights of the minority, much less the individual. Thus, there is little restriction on the types of rules which may be created and since many of these development projects influence policy, development projects unwittingly feed into the autocracy machine.

Can the use of technology in surveys change the nature of responses?

In the past, surveys were done on paper, either through a designed questionnaire or by someone frantically writing down interview responses. When computers came around, people would be hired to type in responses for later analysis.

Nowadays, with the advent of cheap and portable computing, research projects are rapidly moving toward fully digital methods of data collection. Tablet computers are easy to operate, can be cheaply replaced, and now can access the internet for easy uploading of data from the field.

Surveyors like them because large teams can be spread out over a wide space, data can be completely standardized and the tedious process of data entry can be avoided.

Of interest to me, however, is whether the technology is influencing the nature of the responses given. That is, will someone provide that same set of responses in a survey using digital data collection methods as in a paper survey?

Recently, we attempted using a tablet based software for a small project on livestock possession and management on Mbita Point in Western Kenya. I intended it as a test to see if a particular software package might be a good fit for another project I`m working on (the one that`s paying the bills).

We had only limited success. The survey workers found the tablets clunky and a number of problems with the Android operating system made it more trouble than the survey was actually worth. Of interest, though, was how the technology distracted the enumerators from their principle task, which was to collect data.

Enumerators would become so wrapped up in trying to navigate the various buttons and options of the software that they couldn`t effectively concentrate on performing the survey. Often they appeared to skip questions out of frustration or would just frantically select one of the many options in the hope of moving on to the next one.

In a survey of more than 100 questions, the process started taking far more time than households were willing to give. We eventually had to abandon the software and revert to a paper based method.

Surveys went from lasting more than one hour, to taking under 30 minutes. Workers were more confident and had more time to interact with the respondents. Respondents had more of an opportunity to ask questions and consider the meaning of what they were being asked. They offered far more information than we expected and felt that they were participating in the survey as a partner and not just as a passive victim.

One of our enumerators noted that people react differently to a surveyor collecting data on the tablets than with paper. She described collecting data with technology as being “self absorbed” and alienating to the respondents. Collecting data on paper, however, was seen as a plus. “They can see me writing down what they say and feel like their words are important.”

I`m thinking that the nature of the responses themselves might be different as well. Particularly with complex questions of health and disease, often the surveyors will have to explain the question and give a respondent a chance to ask for further clarification. Technology appears to inhibit this process, perhaps compromising the chance for a truly reasoned response.

While I am absolutely not opposed to the use of technology in surveys, I think that the survey strategy has to be properly thought through and the challenges considered. At the same time, however, data collection is a team effort and requires a proper rapport between community members and surveyors who often know each other.

Is technology restricting our ability to gather good data? Could the use of technology even impact the nature of the response by pushing them in ways which really only tell us what we want to believe rather than what actually exists?

A sick mother will make a sick baby who becomes a sick adult

As much as we’d like to believe it, babies aren’t a blank slate. Babies not only bear the social and economic legacies of the families which produce the, but also the scars of a lifetime of immunological insults.

This week, a paper, “Does in utero Exposure to Illness Matter? The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Taiwan as a Natural Experiment,” appeared in the journal of the National Bureau of Economic Research which tracks the long term effects of the 1918-1920 worldwide influenza pandemic.

Turns out that babies which were born to mothers in that period were, on average, shorter than people born in other years, had more developmental problems, and, possibly, suffered from long term problems of chronic disease.

This paper tests whether in utero conditions affect long-run developmental outcomes using the 1918 influenza pandemic in Taiwan as a natural experiment. Combining several historical and current datasets, we find that cohorts in utero during the pandemic are shorter as children/adolescents and less educated compared to other birth cohorts. We also find that they are more likely to have serious health problems including kidney disease, circulatory and respiratory problems, and diabetes in old age. Despite possible positive selection on health outcomes due to high infant mortality rates during this period (18 percent), our paper finds a strong negative impact of in utero exposure to influenza.

It’s interesting to me, in that it’s a study of health on one of Japan’s former colonies, but also because Taiwan’s indicators in 1918 were atrocious. More than a fifth of babies didn’t live to see their fifth birthday, deaths in childbirth were common and life was short. In other words, it’s a lot like a lot of African contexts today.

The long term outcomes of common developing world diseases have mostly been ignored. There is every reason to believe that one of the reasons African countries suffer economically is that people’s developmental trajectory is set before even exiting the womb. SO we’re fighting against not only a bleak economic past, but also against a constant legacy of infectious insults.

And to moms in the developed world…. get your flu shots.

Sunburn…. and thoughts on the dynamic nature of genetics, disease and politics

Not a tree to stand under.

Not a tree to stand under.

I just got back from meeting with our field teams on Lake Victoria in Mbita Point in western Kenya. Normally, I wear up to three layers of clothing, but for some reason, I only wore a single shirt so that an 3cm square area of skin, which would have normally been covered, was exposed to the sun.

Over the course of the day it went from white to brown to red to black. I’m thanking Columbia clothing that the rest of my isn’t black as well.

It sounds really trivial; I got a sunburn. But I’m a really pale guy, and there’s a reason for that. The bulk of my genetics come from northern Europe, an area which is mostly dark, and even when it’s not dark, the sun is filtered through a thick wall of air and moisture.

My skin is not suited to Kenya’s blistering sunlight. My Japanese colleagues inexplicably do their best to keep themselves from tanning. Honestly, I’m jealous of their ability to brown in the sun and don’t really understand why they don’t take full advantage of their innate ability to protect themselves.

In short, I was born pale white, but wish I were black or at least able to brown. It would make field work easier.

Which brings me to this. I often hear people engaging in common conversations about what humans “were meant to do,” as if we were created as complete biological entities designed to perfectly perform specific assigned tasks within the narrow confines of specific environments.

This is a creationist view, but it’s interesting that even non-Christians in the West readily use the same assumptions and terms that are common to religious fundamentalists. The idea is that everything that came after we were kicked out of Eden, in this case East Africa, the birthplace of humanity, is an abomination. Whatever health or social problems we suffer is payback for violating the terms of our initially assigned roles as living beings.

For example, arguments (incorrect ones, by the way) are often made that humans are “meant to be” vegetarians since we don’t have developed canines, an argument of course made preposterous when one runs through the list of mammalian omnivores which also do not have canines. Worse yet, the argument fails to recognize one of humanities greatest adaptations, which is that we can eat just about anything and survive on little for extended periods of time, a skill that allowed us to rapidly move out of East Africa into every corner of the globe.

More salient, however, is that humans were not “meant to be” anything. Like all living beings, we move in response to environment pressures and then adapt while suffering the devastating loss of infants who will not live to pass on traits unsuited to the current environment. Those babies better suited to make it to reproductive age pass on whatever it is that got them there to their children, who then pass it on to their own and mix with others in a sort of genetic democracy.

Babies of my ancestors in northern Europe were more likely to survive with lighter skin, while light skinned babies in Kenya were more likely to not. Neither is “better” than another, but both are suited to their respective environments as they are at that time and neither represent a terminus of genetics.

I take issue with a static view of the world, be it from fundamentalist Christians, who claim that humanity was created fully whole in God’s image or from well meaning secularists, who claim that the world was a biologically static place before the Egyptians, the Romans, the Europeans, the Capitalists and whoever else came in and fucked it all up. Really, it’s interesting how the Biblical creation story persists, even in secular debates.

In my own field, a great failing of research has been to ignore the dynamic nature or disease and human health, assuming that each cross sectionally measured point in time represents a final culmination of set of repeatable events akin to billiard balls on a table. Diseases aren’t that simple. They change in response to the challenges we present to them, which in turn feed back into our own behaviors.

I certainly don’t defend environmental degradation or would I ever minimize calls for developing more sustainable energy and food production systems. However, I would offer that the world, like human genetics is not static, but rather, incredibly dynamic and that a static (and somewhat falsely nostalgic) view of the world is destructive in itself because it keeps us from recognizing the challenges of the present day. Only by thoughtfully examining current conditions and recognizing that things can change can we develop solutions to present and potential future problems.

Alright, I’m done.

A day to celebrate JICA toilets in Nyanza, Kenya

DSC_2057Today I went along with some of my colleagues to not one, but four, dedication ceremonies for a JICA sponsored clean water project.

It’s been an extremely long day.

Nearly 80% of people in this area of Kenya practice open defecation. They don’t use toilets. Of course, fecal matter washes into the lake, which happens to be where they all get their drinking water from. Diarrheal disease is, of course, out of control.

As a public health professional, I’m justifiably annoyed that there are people out there who can’t handle even the simplest sanitation solution: shitting in a single hole. However, it is what it is.

JICA has sponsored the construction of put latrines and the installation of water tanks at several schools in the area. These interventions are dirt cheap, but are way beyond the financial reach of impoverished communities along Lake Victoria. While we would assume that the Kenyan government would be expected to contribute money to help protect their children, the reality is that this area has been politically marginalized since independence. Schools can’t depend on the government to provide even sufficient wages for teachers, let alone sanitation infrastructure. Given the political problems between the current Kikuyu government and the Luo, it’s unlikely that the funds would be provided, even if they were available.

One of the schools we visited is 100% community funded. While it was a rudimentary facility, the locals have to be commended for taking matters into their own hands. I just wish they’d take sanitation more seriously.

Talked to a great bunch of people, listened to some great stories and drank 7 bottles of Coca-Cola. Off to bed.

The uproar over polio: Is it deserved?

Technically, we can eradicate polio, but a number of reported outbreaks around the world have called the possibility into question.

From a CNN article, which pretty much says anything I could say about the current situation:

The spread of polio constitutes an international public health emergency, the World Health Organization declared Monday.

“If unchecked, this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine preventable diseases,” the WHO said in a statement.

At the end of 2013, 60% of polio cases resulted from the international spread of the virus, and “there was increasing evidence that adult travelers contributed to the spread,” according to the statement.

Warfare in Syria is compromising vaccination efforts and human movement, presumably by refugees, are spreading the disease to countries like Iraq and Cameroon. It’s obvious that the failure to eradicate polio is a political problem.

I’ve been asked about polio several times over the past four weeks. People appear to be somewhat panicked about the situation.

Every time, I have responded in the same manner. While the eradication of polio would provide a great publicity boost for public health groups, polio does not present a major threat to global human health. While a small percentage of children infected with polio will go on to develop debilitating paralysis, the disease rarely kills its host. Polio is hardly one of “the world’s most serious vaccine preventable diseases.” I can think of many others which are far more serious.

To complicate matters, the social and medical infrastructure to support people afflicted by the disease is quite well developed in Sub-Saharan African countries. It is common to see polio paralytics in African cities living relatively comfortable lives, despite the severity of their conditions.

I do not share the same level of panic surrounding the failure to eradicate polio. Malaria and diarrheal diseases kill far more children, cause far more human suffering and wreak far more damage to social and economic development in developing countries than polio ever did or ever will. To me, those two are “international health emergencies.”

Vaccines against polio exist and are quite effective at controlling disease worldwide at a relatively low price. While the argument can be made that the eradication of polio would allow that money to be used for other purposes within cash strapped health budgets, the futile push to eradicate polio is likely sapping health money from more immediate health concerns.

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