African health scientists showcase ground-breaking researches

Roselyne Sachiti Features, Health and Society Editor
An estimated 300 health scientists from Africa and other parts of the world are gathered in Dakar, Senegal to showcase ground-breaking researches from across the continent aimed at reducing Africa’s disease burden to create healthier communities.

Scientific breakthroughs under discussion at the meeting, which kicked off on July 15 and ending on July 17 2019, include progress being made on research towards an HIV cure in South Africa, and efforts towards the development of a low-cost HIV drug resistance assay (70 percent lower cost — from $100-$200 to $40-$70), that could substantially reduce the cost of HIV drug resistance surveillance in Africa.

Other scientific breakthroughs that are being discussed include progress being made on research towards early detection tools for cancer and malaria control.

For decades, Africa has experienced prolonged under-investment in health scientific research and development (R&D).

This means the continent’s health research agenda remains foreign-driven.

Moreover, Africa’s R&D investment is currently at only 1,3 percent of global spending.

The under-investment has resulted in scientific brain-drain, where over 10 percent of sub-Saharan Africans with graduate degrees emigrate, leading to low heath research capacity on the continent.

Africa only has 198 researchers per million people, compared to the global average of 1 150.

The Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science (DELTAS) Africa Scientific Conference, themed, “A critical mass: developing world class research leaders” comes at a time Africa’s ability to address its most pressing health problems is limited.

The burden of communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis remains high, while non-communicable diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes are on the rise. New disease outbreaks like Ebola also continue to pose a risk.

The meeting is the first in Francophone Africa, and a partnership between the Senegal-based DELTAS Africa network and related Francophone-based programmes, including the Malaria Research Capacity Development (MARCAD).

It is also the third annual grantees’ meeting of the DELTAS Africa programme; a US$100 million programme of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) supporting the Africa-led development of world class scientific leaders through health research support, training fellowships, mentorship, and investments in research infrastructure in 12 programmes spanning 21 countries.

The 12 programmes have collectively attracted additional 298 grants worth over $227 million and received 153 prizes and awards worth $9,3 million in recognition of their scientific excellence.

At the official opening on Monday, AAS president Professor Fleix Dapare said while Africa accounts for 17 percent of the global population, it has the highest global disease burden at 25 percent.

“Newer and likely more deadly diseases present a threat to the continent.

“Non-communicable diseases are contributing to a bigger proportion of the disease burden of the continent, with the World Health Organisation predicting that NCDs may overtake communicable, maternal and perinatal diseases as the leading cause of death by 2030,” he said.

At the meeting, researchers are also dealing with issues around climate change, which remains a threat to lives and livelihoods on the continent.

This comes amid fears that by 2020, between 75 and 250 million people in Africa are projected to be exposed to increased water stress.

“Yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 percent in some countries as a result of climate change, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

“These challenges call for the continent to harness scientific research to find solutions that will enable more Africans to lead better lives,” revealed Prof Dapare.

He told the gathering that through its 2018-2022 strategy, the AAS prioritises addressing these challenges for transformed lives on the continent through science.

He called for accelerated progress in improving the lives of Africans.

In his official remarks at the opening ceremony, Senegal’s Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation Honourable Cheikh Oumar Hanne, said given the burden of diseases in Africa, the continent needs a huge number of well-trained researchers.

This, he said, can come through synergies between experts at national, regional and international levels, and solutions to challenges facing the continent can be addressed. Political commitment is also important and programmes that promote science education should start at the grassroots in primary and secondary school.

In Senegal, Honourable Hanne revealed they had mainstreamed gender in science education and women were doing better than their male counterparts as the pass rates proved.

According to DELTAS Africa programme manager Alphonsus Neba, the conference represents a unique opportunity to demonstrate the value of investing in science and in training a critical mass of scientific leaders in Africa.

“DELTAS Africa is creating professional cutting-edge research environments that will be sustained long after the programme has ended and provide conducive environments to do great science,” he said.

Producing a critical mass of new cadre health researchers and scientists, who will be at the forefront of cutting-edge research, influencing local health policy and driving a locally relevant health research agenda for Africa remains one of DELTAS Africa’s main goals.

There have been many achievements, and to date close to 1 500 Master’s, PhD and postdoctoral trainees, half of whom are women, have been recruited in the four years of the programme, and have collectively published 493 papers in high-impact journals

With close to 348 PhD and post-doctoral fellows registered in institutions outside their home countries, the programme is also promoting intra-Africa collaboration, which is important to mobilise political support for research, to pool scant resources and maximise impact for shared challenges.

At the meeting, over 200 DELTAS Africa-funded fellows and researchers — specifically Master’s, PhD and post-doctoral trainees from its programmes spanning Mali, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe — have showcased scientific outcomes and likely impact of their health research.

“DELTAS Africa is supporting us to create the skilled manpower that Senegal, and indeed, Africa needs to address health challenges that are contributing to an uneven global disease burden.

“We are proud to be part of the programme and are seeing the fruits of investing in science through the numbers of women and postgraduate trainees we have recruited and the impactful research they are conducting,” says MARCAD director Professor Oumar Gaye.

Success stories have been told.

In Mali, the work of Dr Drissa Coulibaly, a MARCAD postdoctoral fellow and medical doctor specialising in parasitology, who is currently researching malaria distribution in time and space as a key element of guiding malaria control programmes across the continent has been told.

In South Africa, PhD scientist Mohanad Mohamed has used next generation gene expression data to aid in early detection and classification of cancer outcomes in that country.

The implications for public health policy have been taken up by provincial health departments for early intervention and treatment of cancer cases with these gene markers.

In May 2015, the Wellcome Trust funded the African Mental Health Research Initiative (AMARI) through the DELTAS programme, the first mental health award on this programme.

The aim of AMARI, whose director is Dr Dixon Chibanda of the University of Zimbabwe College of Health Sciences, is to build an Africa-led network of 47 researchers in mental, neurological and substance use (MNS) disorders in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Malawi and South Africa.

These fellows are being equipped to lead high quality mental health research programmes that meet the needs of their countries.

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