Despite the remarkable socioeconomic transformation that has occurred across much of Africa in recent years, several troubling myths about the continent persist. Bill and Melinda Gates take on these myths – that poor countries are doomed to stay poor, that foreign aid is a big waste, and that saving lives leads to overpopulation – in their annual letter, which was released yesterday. They explain how advances in health, nutrition, and education – and economic growth in many countries – are helping lift millions of people out of extreme poverty. They also explain why these myths are so dangerous: they prevent the world from making even more progress.
As South Africans actively involved in health research for more than three decades, we have heard several other myths over the years, such as that Africa cannot develop new medicines or vaccines for itself, that it lacks the infrastructure to be a leader in scientific research, and that it is overly reliant on foreign scientists to combat its deadly disease burden.
The fact is that globalization of research over the last few decades, has seen the strengthening of international links and a steady flow of external investments for research that has enabled South Africa and other African countries to train highly-qualified scientists and establish a research infrastructure. This research capacity has led to important new products such as a new vaccine against a bacterium that causes meningitis (the MenAfriVac vaccine). It also has set the stage for advances in other interventions such as a pneumococcal vaccine, and prevention and treatment of HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.
Africa has enormous potential as a center of excellence in global health – from discovering and developing new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics to devising the most effective ways to get these life-saving health solutions to the people who need them.
Today’s announcement of two multi-year partnerships involving the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation –with the South African Medical Research Council (MRC) and with the University of Cape Town – is further proof of the ambitious research agenda staked out by local scientists. This alliance, led by South African scientists and co-funded by the South African government, will focus on some of the most important research needed to tackle the continent’s biggest health challenges.
Contributions by the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Health, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will support the MRC’s Strategic Health Innovation Partnerships (SHIP) unit in leading and funding South African researchers and research consortia focused on developing vaccines that prevent HIV and TB. The partnership with the University of Cape Town’s Drug Discovery & Development Centre – led by Professor Kelly Chibale – will concentrate on new drugs to address TB and Malaria.
In 2012, Dr Chibale’s team announced the discovery of a new chemical compound with the potential to not only block the transmission of infectious malaria parasites from mosquitos to humans, but also to cure all strains of malaria. This new chemical will soon be ready for testing in humans, in a set of studies that will be conducted in South Africa.
South Africa has had the great fortune to host world-class science across its many medical schools and universities. In child health alone, South African scientists have made several ground-breaking discoveries, including research by Dr. Greg Hussey at the University of Cape Town on the use of vitamin A to reduce measles deaths, and by Dr. Jerry Coovadia at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on preventing the spread of HIV during breastfeeding. Dr. John Pettifor at the University of Witwatersrand has conducted research on improved bone development in children, and Dr. Robert Pattinson at Pretoria University has explored better health care approaches to decrease early childhood deaths.
But it’s not just in South Africa that we see African scientists and institutions advancing the health sciences.
In Mozambique, Dr. Eusébio V. Macete directs the Manhiça Health Research Center, where he oversees a team of researchers working on malaria, HIV, TB, pneumonia, and diarrheal diseases, and a training fellowship programme that is expanding the pipeline of young African scientists, medical doctors, and technical personnel.
In Mali, Dr. Abdoulaye Djimdé, an Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology and Chief of the Molecular Epidemiology and Drug Resistance Unit at the Malaria Research and Training Centre University of Bamako, is working on cutting edge of research to better understand the epidemiology of antimalarial drug resistance in West Africa.
And in Zimbabwe, Dr. Colleen Masimirembwa is building on eight years of experience as a principal scientist at AstraZeneca – one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies – to advance the pharmaceutical sciences in Africa. As director of the African Institute of Biomedical Science and Technology, his expertise in pharmacokinetics and pharmacogenomics is accelerating drug discoveries for malaria and HIV.
These are just a few examples of the scientific talent and research capacity that exists in Africa. Africa has enormous potential as a center of excellence in global health – from discovering and developing new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics to devising the most effective ways to get these life-saving health solutions to the people who need them. At times, it’s hard to know what is most exciting about all of this – imagining the potential impact these efforts can have on the health of the African people, or celebrating that a growing generation of bright, young African scientists are leading the way in the discovery of new and better health solutions for Africa.