Community engagement among forest goers in a malaria prophylaxis trial: implementation challenges and implications

Conradis-Jansen, Franca; Tripura, Rupam; Peto, Thomas J.; Callery, James J.; Adhikari, Bipin; Ean, Mom; Jongdeepaisal, Monnaphat; Pell, Christopher; Khonputsa, Panarasri; Murgia, Riccardo; Sovannaroth, Siv; Müller, Olaf; Cheah, Phaik Yeong; Dondorp, Arjen M.; von Seidlein, Lorenz and Maude, Richard J. (2023). Community engagement among forest goers in a malaria prophylaxis trial: implementation challenges and implications. Malaria Journal, 22(1), article no. 178.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12936-023-04610-6

Abstract

Background
Malaria transmission in Southeast Asia is increasingly confined to forests, where marginalized groups are exposed primarily through their work. Anti-malarial chemoprophylaxis may help to protect these people. This article examines the effectiveness and practical challenges of engaging forest-goers to participate in a randomized controlled clinical trial of anti-malarial chemoprophylaxis with artemether-lumefantrine (AL) versus a control (multivitamin, MV) for malaria in northeast Cambodia.

Methods
The impact of engagement in terms of uptake was assessed as the proportion of people who participated during each stage of the trial: enrolment, compliance with trial procedures, and drug intake. During the trial, staff recorded the details of engagement meetings, including the views and opinions of participants and community representatives, the decision-making processes, and the challenges addressed during implementation.

Results
In total, 1613 participants were assessed for eligibility and 1480 (92%) joined the trial, 1242 (84%) completed the trial and received prophylaxis (AL: 82% vs MV: 86%, p = 0.08); 157 (11%) were lost to follow-up (AL: 11% vs MV: 11%, p = 0.79); and 73 (5%) discontinued the drug (AL-7% vs MV-3%, p = 0.005). The AL arm was associated with discontinuation of the study drug (AL: 48/738, 7% vs 25/742, 3%; p = 0.01). Females (31/345, 9%) were more likely (42/1135, 4%) to discontinue taking drugs at some point in the trial (p = 0.005). Those (45/644, 7%) who had no previous history of malaria infection were more likely to discontinue the study drug than those (28/836, 3%) who had a history of malaria (p = 0.02). Engagement with the trial population was demanding because many types of forest work are illegal; and the involvement of an engagement team consisting of representatives from the local administration, health authorities, community leaders and community health workers played a significant role in building trust. Responsiveness to the needs and concerns of the community promoted acceptability and increased confidence in taking prophylaxis among participants. Recruitment of forest-goer volunteers to peer-supervise drug administration resulted in high compliance with drug intake. The development of locally-appropriate tools and messaging for the different linguistic and low-literacy groups was useful to ensure participants understood and adhered to the trial procedures. It was important to consider forest-goers' habits and social characteristics when planning the various trial activities.

Conclusions
The comprehensive, participatory engagement strategy mobilized a wide range of stakeholders including study participants, helped build trust, and overcame potential ethical and practical challenges. This locally-adapted approach was highly effective as evidenced by high levels of trial enrolment, compliance with trial procedures and drug intake.

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