Kirinyaga, Kenya—The events of that difficult day in August a few years ago are etched firmly in Charles Waweru’s mind. On that day he left for work with his wife, as he did every morning. All seemed routine, until a few hours later when Charles received a call informing him that his wife had collapsed at work and had been rushed to the hospital unconscious.
“A million things were going through my mind,” says Charles, a community health volunteer (CHV). “It was so unexpected, she had not been sick and so I had no idea what was wrong.” A further diagnosis revealed that his wife in her late thirties had acute hypertension. “This came as a complete shock to me since she had never complained of feeling ill before.”
Charles recounts the month following the diagnosis and hospitalization of his wife as extremely trying for him and his children. “I was mother and father; I cleaned, cooked, went to work, did homework with my children and visited my wife in hospital everyday for a month.”
So when Charles received an invitation from Jhpiego to be trained on hypertension through the Healthy Heart Africa (HHA) program, he did not hesitate to attend. “It was personal to me and so I wanted to learn more so that I could reach as many people as possible,” Charles says.
While high blood pressure is a fairly common condition, often the warning signs– headaches and dizziness – are overlooked or mistaken as symptoms of other ailments. To increase awareness, Jhpiego, the technical lead on the HHA project in Kiambu and Kirinyaga Counties, has trained an estimated 500 health care providers, community health workers and volunteers to educate communities on hypertension, and conduct screenings, assessments and referrals.
First year monitoring and evaluation data indicate that the program has screened approximately 57,000 people to date, including 18,089 by CHVs. Of those screened, 6,141 have been referred for further treatment.
Although monitoring blood pressure (BP) is a routine task in hospitals, newly trained CHVs such as Charles can attest to the difference the HHA approach has made to their home visits. “Before HHA, people in this community were in total darkness in regards to hypertension,” he says.
The training and distribution of blood pressure monitoring kits have added new, vital elements to home medical visits.
“When I visit a client, I start with a health talk on hypertension and then proceed to monitoring the BP of the client(s). In the case of an alarming diagnosis, I refer the client to the hospital,” he says. So far, Charles has screened over 700 clients since receiving his monitoring kit in May. In order to widen his reach, he sets up a screening station during market days. “Sometimes the queue is so long that I do not even get a lunch break!”
But although Charles has noted a significant difference in the level of awareness among members of the community in regards to hypertension since the start of the HHA program, he emphasizes that there is still so much more to be done. “We [CHVs] have managed to create some level of awareness, however there is quite a large number of people who do not know about the symptoms and risks of hypertension. So until then, I am still preaching the hypertension gospel,” he says.