Celebrating Extraordinary Women: Helen "Nelly" Naiga Advocates for Maternal and Women's Health in Uganda

International Women’s Day is a day celebrated across the world that recognizes and honors women’s achievements. This March 2023, TEPHINET is sharing the stories of a few exceptional women to highlight their experiences with Field Epidemiology Training Programs (FETPs).

Helen “Nelly” Naiga is a proud Uganda FETP fellow who has spent the last year analyzing routine surveillance data, conducting epidemiologic studies, engaging in quality improvement projects, responding to multiple disease outbreaks in Uganda, and so much more alongside her cohort of nine women and five men. Nelly was introduced to FETP while working with the Uganda Ministry of Health to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the response, she worked alongside graduates of the Uganda FETP and was struck by how systematic and skilled they were in their approach to surveillance, contact tracing, and prevention of COVID-19. Nelly felt inspired to join the program.  

Although she is driven by her passion for public health and epidemiology, as a female and mother of five, it can often be challenging to be away from home for long periods of time. “I miss my children while I am in the field, but I am also passionate about what I do, about working to contribute to the control of diseases across Uganda. It is the nature of my work to be in the field, and my children understand,” Nelly shared. Thankfully, Nelly has the same opportunities and access to training as her male counterparts, underscoring the level of equality she sees in the program. 

Helen Nelly Naiga, Uganda’s FETP fellow (wearing Blue jeans) interviewed an Ebola survivor to assess her mental health status and share her lived experience. This survivor shares her experience in the Ebola treatment unit (ETU), and her life after suffering and surviving Ebola. (Photo courtesy of Helen Nelly Naiga)

A memorable experience for Nelly in the past year of training was her team’s response to the September 2022 Ebola virus outbreak. Nelly was one of the first health workers to respond to the outbreak, conducting case investigations alongside six FETP fellows and two supervisors in Mubende District during the early days of the outbreak. Later, she and two other female fellows lead the surveillance pillar in Kassanda district, keeping them away from their families for nearly two and a half months. This was a difficult and uncertain time, but her passion for serving her country as a field epidemiologist helped her remain strong. 

Nelly’s team was tasked with leading case investigations, conducting active case searches, contact listing, tracing, and follow-up, developing epidemiological links, and updating daily situation reports. Their duties revolved around speaking with community members daily, working to understand every detail of their conversations so they could accurately respond to the outbreak. The three women worked hard to build rapport with community members, connecting with them on different levels. “As women, we would talk to them [from the perspective of] parents when need be; we would talk to them as health workers when need be; we would talk to them as friends, because at some point they kept losing their friends and we had to be a part of that community,” said Nelly.

Helen Nelly Naiga, Uganda’s FETP fellow (dressed in blue jeans) interviewed and assessed the mental health of a mother (75yrs, old) that lost her daughter (56yrs, old) to EBOLA. This mother was expressing how much grief she has, as it was her deceased daughter that took care of all her needs. (Photo courtesy of Helen Nelly Naiga)

Nelly feels that going beyond a simple case tracking tool is important for field work. When tasked with assessing the mental health status of Ebola survivors, she focused on truly listening to the survivor’s lived experience and concerns. With the diligent efforts of the three women, their team gained the trust of community members. Although it was an exciting experience to serve their country, there were some sad moments. One super spreader case, for example, resulted in more than 30 confirmed cases and 17 deaths in one sub-county in Kassanda district. The presence of so many deaths in a single small community with a busy trading center at its heart was so devastating that all community members closed their businesses at one point. The busy trading center had become a haunted city. Although it was sad, the loss of so many people in their community brought the community on board with interventions, distancing, and rapid reporting when they became ill, ultimately decreasing disease transmission and saving the lives of people who presented with symptoms early. By December, the trading center had returned to life, and community members continued to share any concerns of sickness with Nelly and her colleagues, the three FETP fellows. As a result of the team’s work, Ebola cases in Kassanda district steeply declined and the outbreak was controlled.

Nelly’s experience responding to the Ebola outbreak highlights her passion to address health issues in Uganda. Another health topic that she holds close to her heart and that drives her work is maternal health. As a graduate student, her thesis examined women’s knowledge and usage of long-acting reversible contraception (LARC), and she is currently working on an epidemiological study about LARC in northern Uganda as an FETP fellow. She hopes that the findings will inform future interventions and policies in Uganda. When asked about her future plans after graduating from the Uganda FETP, Nelly shared, “I would love to help create projects to build capacities for health workers and mentor them to educate mothers about family planning. This can improve maternal health and decrease maternal mortality in Uganda. We must also advocate for mothers.” 

Over the past year of her FETP experience, Nelly has gained many hand-on skills already and continues to go above and beyond in her work. She is grateful for the Uganda FETP. As a final message, Nelly said, “I encourage women to pursue careers in field epidemiology because we make excellent disease detectives when responding to outbreaks.”