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A Summer in Africa Leading Outbreak Investigations

Student in Africa standing by community well with young students

March 14, 2019

An MPH student spends her summer in Lesotho combating a drought induced health crisis.

When it became time to select her practicum experience, Alexis Johnson, an MPH ’19 student in Dornsife’s department of Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH), decided to explore global health issues by spending part of her summer in Berea, Lesotho, as a Dornsife Global Development Scholar.

Joining the team at World Vision — a global relief, development and advocacy organization dedicated to working with children, families and communities to overcome poverty and injustice — Johnson got an immediate, hands-on experience in public health, as well as the connection between health and culture. “I led outbreak investigations, implemented intervention strategies, and learned about environmental health from a whole new viewpoint," Johnson says.

During her stay, the World Vision project was helping Lesotho’s population cope with the impact of an ongoing El Niño-induced drought crisis that had devastated many communities in the landlocked country. The resulting lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation put Lesotho residents at high risk for hygiene-related diseases.

Johnson’s work centered on using qualitative and comparative methods to categorize the population’s health problems, while setting priorities for the most effective use of resources — an excellent opportunity to make use of her studies for her minor in Infectious Diseases and Prevention. “I compiled a needs assessment report that examined the prevalence of water, sanitation, and hygiene-related illnesses such as diarrheal diseases,” she says.

While her practicum focused on gathering and evaluating data, Johnson also discovered the many ways that social factors combine to shape and often threaten health and wellbeing in a community. “I quickly learned to articulate how structural bias, social inequities and racism undermine health and create challenges to achieving health equity in the region,” she shares.

Another highlight of the trip was connecting with community members. “Being a fellow person of color, I felt the people of Berea opened up to me and trusted me to provide care. Specifically, I felt I was an example to the young girls and women that no matter their background, they can have dreams and ambitions,” Johnson says.

After 6 years of pursuing her undergraduate and graduate degrees, Johnson looks forward to beginning her professional life. “I am excited about starting a career and getting a job that I love,” she says.