Anita Williams completed her Master of Philosophy in Applied Epidemiology at ANU last year, and is now working as an epidemiologist for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
She reflects on her recent experience as a Field Management Officer in an HIV study in Malawi.
MSF has been running an HIV program in Nsanje Distirct, Malawi, since 2011 in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.
“In this district we were conducting an HIV prevalence survey, to determine the proportion of people (prevalence) living with HIV at the time of the survey. I led six teams of qualified HIV counsellors and testers, a total of 50 staff, to perform household interviews and HIV testing.
“We were using Google Earth to sample the households that would be included in the survey. The limitation was that sometimes you would get directed to a school or a church, or sometimes when the satellite information was old, the households could not even be found, especially as there had been so much destruction with the 2015-2016 floods.
“Another challenge was the topography of the Nsanje District. One time I was going to catch up with one of the survey teams and I was standing on one side of a mountain, with the GPS saying the house was 300m away. But to reach it I had to go down into the valley, across a river, then up the other side, in 45-degree heat, with all the locals looking on and having a bit of a giggle.
“I live in a society where HIV, and the associated stigma, is not something we really struggle with nowadays. But whilst watching the interviews I understood that for people in Malawi, where HIV is very present, it is a day-to-day struggle.
“So even though the purpose of our research was to know the prevalence of HIV in the district in order to provide better services, people were thankful that we were overcoming some of the barriers they faced to knowing their HIV status, by testing them in the privacy of their homes. If someone tested positive, we then referred them to a local healthcare facility for treatment and management.
“Often epidemiology is sitting at a computer looking at numbers, but one of the good things about field epidemiology is that you get to meet the people and not just see numbers.”