Including refugees in disease elimination: challenges observed from a sleeping sickness programme in Uganda
Background: Ensuring equity between forcibly-displaced and host area populations is a key challenge for global elimination programmes. We studied Uganda’s response to the recent refugee influx from South Sudan to identify key governance and operational lessons for national sleeping sickness programmes working with displaced populations today. A refugee policy which favours integration of primary healthcare services for refugee and host populations and the availability of rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) to detect sleeping sickness at this health system level makes Uganda well-placed to include refugees in sleeping sickness surveillance.
Methods: Using ethnographic observations of coordination meetings, review of programme data, interviews with sleeping sickness and refugee authorities and group discussions with health staff and refugees (2013–2016), we nevertheless identified some key challenges to equitably integrating refugees into government sleeping sickness surveillance.
Results: Despite fears that refugees were at risk of disease and posed a threat to elimination, six months into the response, programme coordinators progressed to a sentinel surveillance strategy in districts hosting the highest concentrations of refugees. This meant that RDTs, the programme’s primary surveillance tool, were removed from most refugee-serving facilities, exacerbating existing inequitable access to surveillance and leading refugees to claim that their access to sleeping sickness tests had been better in South Sudan. This was not intentionally done to exclude refugees from care, rather, four key governance challenges made it difficult for the programme to recognise and correct inequities affecting refugees: (a) perceived donor pressure to reduce the sleeping sickness programme’s scope without clear international elimination guidance on surveillance quality; (b) a problematic history of programme relations with refugee-hosting districts which strained supervision of surveillance quality; (c) difficulties that government health workers faced to produce good quality surveillance in a crisis; and (d) reluctant engagement between the sleeping sickness programme and humanitarian structures.
Conclusions: Despite progressive policy intentions, several entrenched governance norms and practices worked against integration of refugees into the national sleeping sickness surveillance system. Elimination programmes which marginalise forced migrants risk unwittingly contributing to disease spread and reinforce social inequities, so new norms urgently need to be established at local, national and international levels.