Journals play a key role in bridging knowledge gaps

April 29, 2012

Lia Labuschagne

Lia Labuschagne

What role can scientific journals play in bringing the knowledge divide, not only between North and South, but also between researchers and policymakers?

A lively general discussion at Forum 2012 focussed on the role of journals in knowledge transfer in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights. But the same issues relating to disseminating scientific information also apply to other disciplines.

Some current topics relating to the international output of scientific journals were introduced by Marge Berer, editor of Reproductive Health Matters, and Ann Strode, senior lecturer at the School of Law, University of KwaZulu Natal, and editorial advisory board member of AIDS Care.

Journal articles can help bridge the gap between research and policymakers (Credit: Reproductive Health Matters)

Berer commented that “there has never been so much information before, nor so many means of disseminating and using it”.

Participants in the general discussion nevertheless pointed out that, especially in developing countries, there is often a big time lag between research being completed and finding its way into text books.

Factually outdated information is often still being taught. And although new health and other policies may be adopted, there may be no change in teaching material.

Scientific journals provide a useful link across this divide, partly because their up-to-date research findings and information is increasingly becoming available in accessible, electronic format to a global readership of academics and practitioners within various disciplines.

Advocates and lobbyists also use the information in journals as the basis of advancing well-founded arguments for change of policies and practices.

Strode said journals such as AIDS Care are therefore used by both researchers and policymakers as a high-quality source of knowledge that they can provide from a multi-disciplinary perspective.

Some additional ideas to emerge from the discussion of ways to use the contents of scientific journals to aid development included translations of articles into local languages, and selecting key pieces of writing on specific topics to be made them available as thematic packages.

In terms of the North/South divide, Berer pointed out that “more authors from developed countries than from developing countries have access to the resources to publish in international journals”.

To help to redress this imbalance, she said that RHM gives preference to papers about developing countries by authors from those countries, or written with authors from those countries.

Broader issues discussed at the session included the continued debates around open and closed peer review processes, formal recognition for reviewers, and questions of ownership and funding.

Lia Labuschagne is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 

Social media rises to the challenge of health communication

April 27, 2012

Lia Labuschagne

Lia Labuschagne

Health researchers should consider the creative use of social media – and in particular of new communication tools such as “edutainment” – as part of a comprehensive communication strategy because, like anything else, research findings need to be effectively marketed.

In the words of Kirsten Patrick, clinical reviews editor of the British Medical Journal, addressing a session of Forum 2012 devoted to the topic of science and social media, “it is our job not only to do the research, but to get it out there.”

Soul City: Showing how "edutainment" can communicate health messages (Credit: Soul City)

One example of how edutainment can be done successfully is demonstrated by Soul City in South Africa – or to give it its full title, the Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication.

This uses an entertaining storyline in television drama to influence behaviour and practices relating to health, nutrition and sexuality.  Recent themes have included medical male circumcision and the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Bongiwe Ndondo, monitoring and evaluation manager of Soul City, told the session that edutainment as a technique for transmitting social messages through entertainment had been practiced in traditional societies for centuries.

Soul City has brought the idea up-to-date by translating this concept into national television series, supported by 23 radio talk shows on seven community radio stations, printed material, internet-based social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and mobile applications, in particular Young Africa Live.

She explained that research is the cornerstone of the roadmap leading to the production of a new television series, which is always “based on an extensive and rigorous research process that ensures quality, relevance and effectiveness.”

Denis Jjuuko, a media and communication consultant from Uganda, argued that social media could stimulate discussions and fill gaps left by reports in traditional, mainstream media. This was especially important in countries with limited press freedom, or where mainstream media shy away from sensitive topics.

Jjuuko said that the rapid growth of mobile technology in Africa provided an important new distribution medium. “Social media has become mainstream, and can sometimes do what other media cannot do, especially in some parts of Africa, where mainstream media may, for example, be virtually closed when you deal with certain issues of sexuality.

“In such cases you can use mobile technology and social media such as blogs and video on YouTube to get your message across.”

ResearchAfrica managing editor Linda Nordling argued that social media “give you quite a lot of control, because you can respond and you do not rely on an intermediary such as a journalist as in the traditional media.”

She also said that social media were also “important in terms of ‘narrow casting’:  talking not only to many people, but the right people”.

In the discussion that followed the presentations, participants pointed to some of the difficulties that researchers have encountered with social media, and indeed with attempting to engage in the public communication of their research results.

These includes the dangers of being misquoted, ethics issues – particularly when sensitive clinical trials were involved –  fears around the improper use and interpretation of data, and the adverse effects of an indiscriminate dissemination process, especially when researchers were working on sensitive topics.

Speakers on the panel also included contributions by SciDev.Net editor David Dickson and Brenda Zulu, founder of Africa Interactive Media in Zambia.

Lia Labuschagne is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 

An AIDS vaccine — there’s still hope

July 2, 2009

syringe_Flickr_Nick Atkins PhotographyWill we ever have an AIDS vaccine? After numerous failed trials — including 2007’s infamous Merck trials — you could be forgiven for wondering whether HIV, the most complex human virus, is just too smart for us, with its constant, rapid mutation and ability to hide parts of itself from the immune system.

But hope is not lost, according to Wayne Koff, from the AIDS Vaccine Initiative, and University College London’s Robin Weiss. In the lunchtime session ‘An AIDS Vaccine: Mission Impossible?’ the researchers said that they have made a “significant amount of incremental advances” … but admitted that significant challenges remain.

Koff assured the session there are currently “about 30” vaccine candidates in clinical trials. Four of these are currently in efficacy trials, including a combination vaccine consisting of a shot of canarypox and a shot of protein vaccine.

And Weiss said that they have made big advances in identifying adjuvants, agents that stimulate the immune system and improve response to a vaccine.

But they don’t yet know how to elicit neutralising antibodies — an essential requirement of a successful vaccine.

Weiss said, “One can always use more money, but it’s the scientific and technical stumbling blocks that are the problem.”

They said that vital clues may lie in people who appear able to control or resist HIV infection.

Pressured in jest by Andrew Jack — pharmaceuticals correspondent for the Financial Times, who chaired the session — to give an estimate for “when?”, Weiss, who had earlier said “It’s not impossible but don’t pin me down for a date” reluctantly offered 20 years. Koff went with an infinitesimally better “less than 20”.

The results of the canarypox trial are expected at the end of this year. Will it go the way of Merck or will a new hope be born? In Koff’s words: “Wait and see … I wouldn’t want to take a crystal ball to it.”

A little bleak for a self-confessed optimist, perhaps? Still, maybe it’s better to hedge than hype in such matters.

Naomi  Antony

AIDS 2008 ends highlighting universal access need

August 10, 2008
Performance of the group Kormix at the Global Village, a parallel meeting open to the general public

Performance of the group Kormix at the Global Village, a parallel meeting open to the general public Credit: International AIDS Society/Mondaphoto

The AIDS 2008 – The XVII International AIDS Conference ended last Friday (8 August), in Mexico City. It was the second largest in the history of the International AIDS Conferences and the first held in Latin America.

“More than ever, at this conference we have faced reality and we have helped give visibility to vulnerable populations by naming these groups loud and clearly”, said Pedro Cahn, the conference co-chair, in his speech in the closing session and in his last day as president of the International AIDS Society.

Cahn supported the universal access to the treatment, but highlighted: “We have to keep in mind that we still have five new infections for every two patients reached by ARV [antiretroviral drugs] roll out. And we know that even doubling the number of patients reached by these scale up programmes would be insufficient to reach universal access.”

Cahn called attention to the fact that “behind statistics, behind each number, behind each graph or curve, there are millions of people waiting for support, treatment and care”.

“We need more funds for AIDS; we need more integration with sexual and reproductive health, Tuberculosis and Sexually Transmitted Infectious services”, he said.

Julio Montaner, the incoming president of the International AIDS Society for 2008-2010 and director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Vancouver (Canada), also supported the universal access during the closing session:

“We must keep the pressure on the G8 leaders to follow up on their commitment to achieve universal access to prevention, care and treatment by 2010”.

Montaner affirmed that “there can be no end to the pandemic unless we secure full protection of human rights for those most vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. The rights of sex trade workers, injecting drug users, men who have sex with men, aboriginals, and women and girls must be protected through legal and policy reform in every country around the world. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go in this regard”.

About 50 per cent of the delegates at the 2008 conference had never before attended an international AIDS Conference. Furthermore, the International AIDS Society sponsored over 2,500 delegates from 95 countries.

Montaner said: “These carefully selected participants have made a commitment to return home to actively disseminate the newly acquired knowledge, as part of a concerted strategy to reach every corner of the world. Together, they represent the new generation that will pick up the fight against HIV.”

For more information on AIDS 2008 and to watch webcasts of several sessions, visit the AIDS 2008 website.

The next international International AIDS Conference will be in Vienna, Austria, in 2010.

Luisa Massarani, Latin America coordinator, SciDev.Net

HIV drugs ‘can defend against new infections’

August 7, 2008

[MEXICO CITY] Antiretroviral drugs can be used to prevent new HIV infections, according to research presented at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City this week (5 August).

The research, from the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) in Canada, found a strong link between the use of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) and prevention of new infections.

Read the full story on SciDev.Net

HIV and TB: visiting the (sad) reality of a South African township shack

August 7, 2008
A photographic exhibition shows the reality in a South African shak
A photographic exhibition shows the reality in a South African shack

Mixed feelings is what I felt when visiting the photographic exhibition prepared by 27 year old South African photographer Damien Schumann, during the AIDS 2008 conference.

He displayed an authentic South African township shack, presenting (beautiful and sad) pictures of people and families affected by tuberculosis (TB) and HIV, their stories and the lifestyle and living conditions that influence these diseases.

The exhibition initially focused on TB. “I was intrigued with the fact that TB is a disease that can be cured, but still the prevalence is high, so I wanted to hear the opinions, views and challenges from the point of view of those who are infected by it”, Schumann told me.

“Soon, I realised that a significant number of those that have TB are also HIV-positive, so the exhibition focuses on both diseases.”

The pictures were taken in South Africa and Zambia over six months. Schumann also asked the people to handwrite their views on the diseases in their mother language, which also form part of the exhibition.

“However, when the pictures were ready I realised that they didn’t express the real context, so I built the environment of a real shack for trapping the audience”, he said.

The shack was originally built for to coincide with the 2006 World TB day. The version displayed at the AIDS 2008 conference is supported by the WHO.

For more information visit

Luisa Massarani, SciDev.Net coordinator Latin America and the Caribbean

Caribbean to launch strategic plan against HIV/AIDS

August 7, 2008

The Pan-Caribbean Partnership Against HIV/AIDS (PANCAP) will launch in October a US$7.73 million four year strategic plan to fight HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, the second-most affected region in the world after sub-Saharan Africa.

The announcement was made during the AIDS 2008 conference by representatives of the Caribbean Community (Caricom) Secretariat. PANCAP is a Caricom special project.

According to Avert, an international HIV/AIDS charity based in the United Kingdom, there were an estimated 230,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean by the end of 2007. About 20,000 people were newly infected during 2007, and there were 14,000 deaths due to the disease.

The prevalence of HIV is 1.2 per cent, but in two countries – the Bahamas and Haiti – more than two per cent of the adult population is living with the virus.

The strategic plan against HIV/AIDS, to be carried out from 2008 to 2012, has six priority areas, including monitoring evaluation and research; prevention of transmission; capacity development for HIV/AIDS services; and treatment, care and support.

“We have been undertaking actions against HIV/AIDS, but we are not seeing impacts yet; we believe that giving emphasis to research [in the strategic plan] will guide us to reach better results and to promote a change in the region”, Edward Greene, assistant secretary general of the Caribbean Community Secretariat, told SciDev.Net.

“A problem Caribbean countries face is that they are classified as middle-income countries, thus they are not apt to receive external aid. In other words, they are too rich to receive help but too poor for afford themselves”, Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS – the UN Programme on AIDS – told journalists.

Luisa Massarani, SciDev.Net/Latin America and the Caribbean

Africa ‘must not stop HIV vaccine trials’

August 6, 2008

Shutting down clinical trial centres in Africa in response to continued failure of HIV vaccine candidates would be a big mistake, researchers warned at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City yesterday (5 August).

They stressed the pivotal role played by Africa and African researchers in the search for a HIV vaccine.

Read the full story on SciDev.Net

The Lancet: special issue on HIV/AIDS

August 6, 2008

Here is an opportunity to keep updated on HIV/AIDS. The Lancet, the UK medical journal, launched a special issue on HIV prevention at the AIDS 2008 conference yesterday (5 August).

The issue features a series of six papers and two comments – all previously published online – approaching the theme of HIV prevention under different perspectives, including history, biomedical interventions and behavioural strategies to reduce HIV transmission.

It includes information and experiences from around the world.

For more information, visit The Lancet website.

WHO launches new HIV/AIDS guide

August 6, 2008

The WHO has launched a package “designed to help low- and middle-income countries to move towards universal access to HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support”.

Priority Interventions: HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care in the health sector, launched at the AIDS 2008 conference yesterday (5 August)  is a compilation of WHO-recommended priority HIV/AIDS health-sector interventions.

The publication includes treatment recommendations, guidelines and standards.

According to the WHO, it’s is intended to be a ‘living’ web-based publication, periodically updated with new recommendations based on the rapidly evolving experience of the health-sector response. However, it is not available in the website yet, only in CD-ROM format.

For more information, visit the WHO website

Luisa Massarani, SciDev.Net/Latin America and the Caribbean

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