Courtesy of Weill Cornell Medicine

Dr. Jennifer Downs in Tanzania for her project on mucosal immunity, HIV and schistosomiasis through the Department of Medicine Seed Grant

March 16, 2022

Weill Cornell Physicians Use Religion to Combat Hypertension in Tanzania

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On Jan. 1, Dr. Robert Peck and Dr. Jennifer Downs, associate professors of medicine in pediatrics at Weill Cornell, received funding from the National Institutes of Health to launch their research project, “Using Religious Leaders to Reduce Blood Pressure in Tanzania.”

Hypertension is a common condition when blood pressure is higher than normal.

Hypertension rates are increasing throughout Africa, especially in sub-saharan countries like Tanzania. Because hypertension is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, its prevalence poses a risk for the health and well being of many Tanzanians.  

To combat this, Peck and Downs, the principal investigators of this project, are partnering with religious leaders to transmit public health messages. 

Both principal investigators have experience working with this topic. Last year, Peck started an NIH-funded study that studies the relationship between sleep, cardiovascular disease and human immunodeficiency virus in Tanzania. His research team will enroll their first participant this week. 

Downs and her team have worked with Tanzanian doctors, religious educators and public health leaders to increase implementation of HIV-prevention measures, such as male circumcision and family planning education among women. 

Together, they hope to address the disparities of awareness and treatment for hypertension in rural Tanzanian communities by using religious leaders. 

According to Peck, 50 percent of the country would call themselves Christian while the other half would call themselves Muslim. In addition, most of them are religiously observant, attending at least one religious meeting a week. Therefore, religious leaders are trusted sources within these communities. 

“[Religious leaders] are also very eager to provide their community with public health messages that can increase the health and longevity of their own communities,” said Peck. 

The research component of the project comprises three stages. The first includes developing a curriculum that addresses the needs of the community through diet and exercise recommendations and treatment of hypertension. 

The second stage includes the clustered randomized trial where the team will test the efficacy of using religious leaders to lower blood pressure on a community level. 

The third stage includes implementation of results. During this phase, Peck and Downs will study the community impact of the intervention and how it can be improved. 

The team will work with and train regional Mwanza Christian and Muslim religious leaders. These regional religious leaders will then go out to villages and train local religious leaders about diet, exercise and healthy living to prevent and treat hypertension. 

Religious leaders will also be equipped with blood pressure machines so that they can conduct blood pressure screenings. 

To produce long term, effective results, groups of regional religious leaders and doctors will meet with local religious leaders every two months, said Downs. 

Downs adds that religious leaders will share their achievements and challenges during the process and receive refresher training on blood pressure measurements and control. 

The physicians hope their study will improve health in the country through a medical and religious perspective.