Looking toward Generation F3 and Beyond – Sustaining Malaria Research Capacity in Africa

Olumide Ogundahunsi, of WHO/TDR Geneva, Switzerland provided a look back and toward the future of the Multilateral Initiative for Malaria (MIM) during one of the final plenary sessions at the MIM2013 6th Pan-African Malaria Conference in Durban.  Excerpts from his talk and slides are presented below…

Sustaining research capacity aTwenty years ago, we were asleep, malaria elimination was a dream, and the reality was a nightmare.  After the serial failures of the malaria eradication campaign in Africa, malaria control was barely moving along. But today we are wide awake, it is not yet “uhuru” as far as malaria goes but we are making gains having learnt the importance of combined interventions, we are applying them with success in a number of places.

However, there is still some distance to go in this war and many battles ahead.  To quote one of the plenary speakers during this conference, “the fight against malaria can only be won by well-trained people” (Dr Robert Newman).  …..

  • People who have the necessary capacity to optimise the available tools and develop new ones.
  • People who are embedded in the endemic countries
  • People who know and understand the contexts in which the tools and interventions will be deployed.
  • Communities empowered to implement and sustain interventions

The issue I would like to ponder in the next half hour is how we ensure that we have enough of these people to do the job!

pub research papers aThe last time we were in Durban (as the MIM), the Welcome Trust, the MIM secretariat at that time, had just published a comprehensive report on malaria research capacity in Africa.  The report included data on for example the number of African institutions publishing more than 10 malaria related papers in the 3 years preceding the report – a mere 15 in the whole continent! This has changed significantly in the past 14 years to 38 Institutions.

Fifteen years ago only a handful of agencies and programs were interested in research capacity strengthening and there were even those who considered capacity building poor investments…..the situation has of course changed since and the members of my generation – the so called F2 generation who were either graduate students or post docs at that time maturing as

  • Established researchers in reputable and highly successful institutions
  • Working in Africa and meeting the challenges of working in a challenging environment
  • Highly motivated scientists recognised by their peers and the international scientific community
  • Contributing to research and control of malaria in their countries and the continent

 Of the 90 plus researchers in the F2 generation only 4 are no longer working in Africa.  They remain committed and well recognized experts in their fields.

CNRFP aThere are also several institutions that have evolved in the past 14 years because of support for RCS…. Noguchi Memorial Institute or medical research in Ghana and the health research facilities in Kitampo, Bagamoyo, Centre Muraz Bobo Diolasso and the Centre Nationale de Recherche et de Formation Paludisme (CNRFP) in Ouagadougou.   CNRFP received the first grant in 1999 (slide 11) to study the relationship between malaria transmission intensity and clinical malaria, immune response and plasmodic index. The institution has since grown from a modest staff of six in 1999 to 36 currently.

It has acquired well established capacities for operational / implementation research, clinical trials and studies on vector management (slide 113, and funding from several international partners.

These stories illustrate how capacity is being built in Africa not only by WHO/TDR and the MIM but also MCDC, the WT, EDCTP/EC, the NIH, BMGF and SIDA/SAREC among others.

Is this enough? And can we rest content on the success and contributions of the current generation of African malaria researchers?  Is the capacity adequate?

It will be naive to look at Africa as a single entity as is often done.  The capacity (human resource and infrastructure) for research and control against malaria does not match the burden or the scope of the battle.  There are still places where there are:

  • Limited human resources
  • Lack of infrastructure
  • Funding disparity
  • Limited access to technology
  • Limited interactions between the research and control communities

CNRFP Scientific staff aThe last of these….. “limited interactions between research and control communities“ in particular pose a significant barrier to effective deployment of interventions and strategies.

It is not enough to prove that a strategy or an intervention works (often in a controlled setting).  In the real life context, there are multiple factors ranging from the quality and structure of the health system, to culture, the political, and the socio economic  that impact on our ability to effectively implement or scale up for impact.

The next generation of malaria researchers in Africa must be able to better address this gap if we must extend the frontiers of malaria elimination and shrink the malaria map further.

I can say most of the current generation (my generation) stood on the shoulders of an older generation of African scientists and their collaborators in other continents (someone referred to them as baobab trees a few days ago), the exposure, training, mentorship and the opportunities they created following Dakar have helped us along……

However when you consider the proportion of Africans speaking at the plenaries during this conference and the number of young scientists and graduate students attending as a whole, I think we have still have a long way to go!

How can we foster the next generation and further strengthen capacity for malaria research in Africa – within the unique context of each country.

As I conclude I want to reflect on the African perspective of training needs and solutions. 14 years ago in identifying enhancers of developing and maintaining a research career in tropical medicine in Africa, we put forward the following:

  • Research funding
  • Research infrastructure
  • Communications
  • Better salaries and career development
  • High quality training

To this I could add one more …. Mentoring

CAM01526 smThese issues remain highly relevant and must be continuously addressed if we are to sustain and indeed improve malaria research capacity in Africa.

Since the creation of MIM, we have seen an increase in research funding in Africa, emergence of centers of excellence, better communication and collaboration to a large extent driven by the global it boom. Better salaries, career development and high quality training!

However in general, funding for research including operations research (and capacity building) in Africa is to a large extent dependent on external funding.

National efforts at capacity building are to a large extent limited to statutory funding for graduate, postgraduate and diploma programmes. Beyond this there is little funding for post-doctoral research training, operational research within programs or innovative product research and development.

In the more than almost one and a half decade since the global community committed to Roll Back Malaria, we have had malaria initiatives from presidents but the human resources to under pin these efforts remain inadequate. We have to do better in capacity building so that 10 years down the road, there is a new generation of well-trained people embedded in the endemic countries with the capacity to optimise the tools and develop new ones if necessary.  Now is the time ……….

  • To lobby and convince African political leaders and governments to invest in research and capacity building
  • To convince the African billionaires who feature in Forbes list to invest in African scientists
  • And to the senior, successful and established African scientists and managers…. It is time to invest in younger talent as mentors.

In 1997, MIM was in the vanguard of an effort to address the issues of

  • Research funding
  • Research infrastructure
  • Communications
  • Better salaries and career development
  • High quality training

Bringing these issues to the attention of the international community and in some cases providing inputs to address them is still an important part of the MIM agenda.

The MIM is even more important now as an advocate for research and capacity building in Africa. WHO/TDR will work with the MIM secretariat to conduct an independent review of the MIM for continued relevance and contribution to the fight against malaria.

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