IDCE Researcher Travels to Africa to Study Emerging Disease Profiles

Dr. Ellen Foley, Associate Professor of International Development and Social Change, first went to Senegal in 1992 as an undergraduate. Since then, much of her work has focused on health concerns facing populations in West Africa, with a primary interest in reproductive and sexual health. Most recently she has teamed up with researchers from Senegal, Burkina Faso, and France who are investigating changing health patterns in West Africa as more people move into urban settings.

“One of the goals of this study is to gain a baseline understanding of epidemiological data in mid-sized cities in West Africa, which have been understudied to this point,” Foley said. “But in addition, we also want to look at how health inequalities play out at the city and neighborhood level.”

The comparative study looks at health conditions and emerging health inequalities in two mid-sized cities – Saint-Louis, Senegal and Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. The primary goal is to determine how social and territorial processes influence vulnerability to disease and experiences with illness and treatment. In order to do this, Foley, who is the director of the qualitative part of the study, created a research protocol to elicit information about how men and women living with hypertension and Type II diabetes understand and manage their disease.  She also trained the survey teams who conducted a household survey and administered a medical questionnaire as part of the epidemiological data collection.

Two of the key non-communicable diseases the study looks at is Type II Diabetes and hypertension. They are also looking at infectious diseases such as malaria and other vector-borne diseases, and malnutrition in children. The study will examine how factors such as neighborhood residence, social class, and proximity to a medical structure play in the prevalence of disease and what the emerging diseases in these areas look like.

The core research team consists of 25 researchers across multiple disciplines. While Foley is responsible for the qualitative aspect, she also worked with geographers who designed the spatial sampling methodology at both the household and neighborhood level, the epidemiologists who designed the medical protocol that required participants to follow up with a check-in at a local medical clinic, and entomologists who trapped and studied insects. “We have four countries represented, two field sites, and four or five different academic disciplines – this is really a flagship transdisciplinary kind of project,” Foley reflected.

This cross-curricular approach to research fits nicely with the mission of the Department of International Development, Community, and Environment (IDCE) to offer a transdisciplinary, scholar-practitioner approach to addressing global as well as local concerns. Through her collaboration with researchers across diverse disciplines, Foley is able to offer her students real world experience of what it means to work across traditional academic barriers.

“As a researcher, I’m best able to address the questions that come out of my own discipline,” she said. “But when I look at this project, the questions that it generates are not the kind of things that any single discipline would have an adequate answer to. We all are anchored in our own work, but, as a teacher and a scholar, I think it’s important to show students that any of these answers on their own are only partial answers. It’s when you can pull from all these different directions that you begin to ask better questions and think more creatively about next steps.

The project is currently in the final stages of data collection and analysis. Foley said she hopes to be able to present preliminary findings to the Clark community at the Marsh Institute lecture in spring 2015 with publications to follow later in 2015 or early 2016.