Analytics training facilitators prepare for a day of learning
Photo Credit: Youssouf Sawadogo, Burkina Faso Jhpiego staff

This summer the MenAfriNet consortium and the international non-profit organization Jhpiego partnered to sponsor a five-day intensive training session in Burkina Faso for regional public health professionals. The workshop, which took place in early August in Bobo Dioulasso, was centered on building analytic capacity to assess surveillance data on bacterial meningitis cases -- a disease that continues to have a devastating impact in countries across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Bacterial meningitis is a brutal disease that advances quickly—causing inflammation in the brain and spinal cord. One in ten people afflicted will die and many of those who survive suffer from long-term effects, including deafness and seizures. Significant progress has been made in controlling bacterial meningitis in the Sub-Saharan African region, including the successful introduction of a vaccine for Neisseria meningitidis serogroup A in 2010. But unfortunately, an estimated 470 million people remain at risk of infection due to other bacterial meningitis pathogens.

Widespread surveillance, which includes data collection and analysis, is one of the most critical tools in the ongoing fight against bacterial meningitis. The August training specifically focused on teaching participants how to use R software – a comprehensive system for data analysis that’s also free, which makes it especially useful to researchers in countries with limited resources – to analyze bacterial meningitis surveillance data.

Facilitators from the government of Burkina Faso developed the curriculum, which covered installation of the R system, introduction to its basic features, and instruction on how to create variables and clean data. Participants were also given hands-on exercises, for which they used real meningitis surveillance datasets from Burkina Faso and Niger.

Photo Credit: Youssouf Sawadogo, Burkina Faso Jhpiego staff
A few data analytics trainers pose for a photo before starting the day's session

A Powerful Analytics Tool Accessible to All

At the start of the workshop, most participants had never used R before. By the end of the training, they had learned a variety of data analysis skills, including how to recode variables, assess missing and duplicate data, and fix erroneous formats. Additionally, they learned how to create variables to calculate meningitis performance indicators established by health officials within the MenAfriNet consortium, and gained skills in basic merging, exporting of data, and creating explanatory graphics such as bar graphs, histograms, and pie charts.

“The R platform is user friendly and accessible, which makes it invaluable in public health work like this,” said Dr. Boukary Ouedraogo, Director of Health Information Systems at Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Health. In just a few days, participants were able to gain essential skills that will allow them to use data to detect meningitis outbreaks and respond rapidly, and also to identify long term trends in the disease over time.

The R platform is user friendly and accessible, which makes it invaluable in public health work like this.

Facilitators help participants in R
Photo Credit: Youssouf Sawadogo, Burkina Faso Jhpiego staff
Facilitator works with participant and answers questions about R
Training in session

Among those participating in the session were public health workers from Niger, staff from the Burkina Faso Ministry of Health, members of the local non-profit Davycas, and representatives from World Health Organization (WHO).  

“I found this training to be very relevant,” said attendee Clement Lingani, a member of the WHO Inter-Country Support Team in Burkina Faso. “It responded to the needs of those involved in surveillance work – especially those involved in meningitis surveillance.”

Given the success of the R workshop, an ongoing series of similar trainings will be offered with the goal of strengthening bacterial meningitis surveillance in the African countries most impacted by the disease.  With these critical skills, software, and information, public health workers can continue to effectively fight outbreaks and move us closer to defeating meningitis.