Early in his career, Stephen Mucheke realized that his efforts to promote health, education, and community development in rural Kenya faced a major barrier: HIV/AIDS. Already focused on family planning and reproductive health, he shifted to helping communities throughout Africa prevent and reduce the impact of this disease.
“HIV/AIDS has a negative impact on individuals, families, and communities. It changes the way people perceive themselves and how a community perceives these individuals,” says Mucheke, who’s now a senior technical officer for HIV/AIDS prevention programs in Mozambique and a Walden University student pursuing a PhD in Public Health with a specialization in Community Health Education.
In his current position, Mucheke is responsible for overall leadership and technical support to organizations implementing health communication programs in HIV prevention in communities. He draws on more than 15 years of experience in health education and disease prevention, which includes effective efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The communications tools and materials that Mucheke designed specifically for low-literacy audiences were adopted in several other African countries. He was involved in the establishment of strong workplace HIV prevention programs and an HIV/AIDS prevention curriculum that became part of basic training for public institutions in Kenya. He worked with the National Museums of Kenya to create a comprehensive HIV/AIDS education gallery presenting prevention messages to the public in a comfortable, welcoming environment. Mucheke also led the development of a successful HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention campaign that was the first in Kenya to engage very conservative communities—including their female members—in discussions about the disease.
“Throughout my working life, I have learned that long-lasting change can be achieved when communities are involved in making decisions that concern their health and welfare,” Mucheke says. “When community groups come together voluntarily to support implementation of program activities and when they advocate for a change of policy by the government to facilitate access to healthcare for those in need, these are indicators of program success.”
Working in a variety of countries has provided Mucheke with other important lessons. “Each country is different, and people have cultural values and perceptions that need to be understood and respected,” he says. “As an outsider, don’t try to suggest replacing a cultural practice even if it compromises community health. Instead, empower people through questions and dialogue to clarify their values, and to provide answers to their most difficult questions.”
Though he can point to many successes, Mucheke has also encountered the inevitable challenges involved in HIV/AIDS education and prevention. For example, he notes, the first goal of any prevention program is to ensure individuals know their HIV serostatus. Those who receive an HIV-positive result will require additional support. “These needs sometimes go beyond the mandate of a program or overstretch its resource and personnel capacity,” he says. “When working in low-resource settings, HIV/AIDS needs can be overwhelming.”
This realization led Mucheke to the PhD in Public Health program at Walden. As he works toward graduation, he is already seeing results. “The program has helped me increase my impact in many ways,” he says. “I have been able to design program activities in ways that incorporate best practices, such as the benefits of audience segmentation in HIV/AIDS prevention programs. I’ve been able to translate academic knowledge into action and to update my knowledge of health promotion and disease prevention by incorporating innovations such as social media as a tool for health promotion.” Eventually, Mucheke’s initial successes were no longer enough. “I realized I needed to do more and couldn’t do it as an individual,” he explains. “To make a more effective and long-term contribution to public health practice, I needed a means of expanding my scope of knowledge by acquiring new knowledge, applying this knowledge, and engaging and sharing with other professionals.”
For Mucheke, this is only the beginning. “My goal now is to contribute to effective public health practices through research and by training public health professionals—especially field practitioners,” he says. “The biggest hope for public health in turning the tide of emerging health challenges is that many life-threatening diseases, including HIV/AIDS, are preventable through effective health promotion and disease prevention programs.”
Mucheke says behavioral change is a slow race against time. “Sometimes one has to perceive the work as a calling in order to make a difference in the lives of needy people. The greatest reward comes when one sees an improvement among individuals and families and when the community says ‘thank you’ for touching their lives positively.”