As Sudan Struggles with COVID-19, Medical Students Get Online Support to Help Their Communities
Almost half of Sudanese households are concerned about food security.

KHARTOUM – A telemedicine programme is helping Sudanese medical students to both treat community members with mild COVID-19 in their homes and educate their communities about the pandemic.

Many medical students, who have been sitting at home since medical schools were closed last year due to the pandemic, joined the community medical response teams (CMRT) established earlier this year by US-based Sudanese physician Dr Nada Fadul, an infectious disease physician at University of Nebraska, and Dr Reem Ahmed from Emory University.

Over the past five months, Fadul,  Ahmed and other Sudanese physicians outside the country, have trained more than 120 medical and healthcare students in over 50 Sudanese neighborhoods to manage patients with COVID-19 in their homes. 

“The students wanted to do something, but they didn’t know what to do or how to do it safely,” said Dr Fadul.

“In addition to the impact they’re having on patients, students benefit from pursuing their learning in a hands-on way. When they return to their classrooms, they will be better equipped to take on new challenges.” 

The CMRT training focuses on the principles of home management for mild to moderate cases; home isolation and quarantine methods; and identifying life-threatening symptoms that require immediate medical attention.

Access to up-to-date information

Last month, the CMRTs linked up with Project ECHO, a US-based initiative that connects the students to medical experts who offer case-based telementoring and collaborative problem-solving.

Asmaa Alhadi, a fifth year medical student studying at the National Ribat University in Khartoum, joined the first cohort of CMRT facilitators in January, and said that the programme has enabled her to access up-to-date information on scientific studies and data on the pandemic.

“All this has made it easier for me to speak comfortably to community members

since I am equipped with a huge amount of knowledge and skills to overcome community hesitancy and fears towards the disease and vaccines,” she said.

Alhadi explained that there is a lot of stigma surrounding the virus in Sudan, particularly in rural areas where there is greater vaccine hesitancy. 

“The real change I believe the project has had is through the number of awareness and educational campaigns held in different local neighbourhoods,” she said.

These campaigns, she maintains, have played a big role in convincing people to get the vaccine by sharing with them the benefits of being vaccinated and how it will help in saving lives.

“From my point of view, even changing only one individual’s misconceptions about COVID-19 is quite satisfying, especially in a closed country like Sudan,” she said.

The CMRT, with support from ECHO, hopes to reach 400 students in Sudan by the end of 2021.

Rising hardship caused by pandemic

A World Bank report published in May highlighted the massive economic impact of the pandemic on the country, with 67% of people reporting that they had been unable to return to work, almost half of households (47%) concerned about food security and one-fifth unable to buy basics such as bread and milk because of rising prices.

The country has vaccinated approximately 0.8% of its population against COVID-19 using vaccines provided by COVAX, according to Reuters

Project ECHO was founded in 2003 at the University of New Mexico in the US, and has launched about 1000 programmes in nearly 50 countries, addressing more than 70 health conditions. 

In Sudan, the University of New Mexico is collaborating with the University of Nebraska Medical Centre (UNMC) and the Sudanese Federal Ministry of Health (MoH). It is also working with the Sudanese American Medical Association (SAMA) and Sudan NextGen (SNG), both of which are coalitions of Sudanese organisations against COVID-19.

Dr Bruce Baird Struminger, senior associate director of the ECHO Institute at the University of New Mexico, said that the pandemic had challenged Sudan’s health system that was already weakened by years of civil war and unrest. 

“We hope to continue to expand the use of ECHO more broadly in future years to enable the CMRT volunteers to target other priority communicable and non-communicable diseases,” Struminger told Health Policy Watch.

One of the main challenges facing the initiative is power outages and poor internet connectivity. The programme is seeking solutions to strengthen internet connectivity and power access at local medical schools and other sites to transform these locations into local ECHO learning sites. 

Students can either join learning sessions remotely or at the Sudanese American Medical Association main office and at the Federal Ministry of Health offices.

Almost 50 community outreach activities have been conducted in Sudan by volunteers in the programme. This includes education sessions on COVID-19 prevention and vaccination in schools, local mosques and neighbourhood clubs.

Alhadi believes that attracting more players, not only medical field partners like the Federal Ministry of Health, could help improve the initiative.

“I do believe that being in touch with different partners from different fields will make it similar to a multidisciplinary team who are working side-by-side to achieve the project”s goals, starting from democratisation of medical knowledge through to reaching community members and changing their thoughts and practices towards the disease,” she said.

Since April 2020, more than 180,000 people have participated in ECHO video-conference-based virtual learning sessions across Africa, most of which have been focused on COVID-19. 


Image Credits: Sarah Farhat/World Bank.

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