Cometh the hour, cometh the solutions…

April 26, 2012

Lia Labuschagne

Lia Labuschagne
Freelance journalist working in Cape Town


Research on humanitarian responses to emergencies faces practical challenges relating to data collection and feasibility. In addition, there are often sensitive ethical implications relating to carrying out research in such conditions.

A case study presented at Forum 2012 by Jun Yan, director of the mental health division of China’s Ministry of Health, and Sun Xueli  of Sichuan University, looked at some of the experiences relating to mental health services after the deadly 7.9 magnitude earthquake near Wenchuan, in the Sichuan province, in May 2008.

The Wenchuan earthquake in May 2008 caused 69,000 deaths (Flickr/Wen Chuan)

More than 69,000 people had died, a further 370,000 were injured, with about 4.8 million people left homeless: in total 40 million people were affected by the disaster.

A guideline for psychological crisis intervention in emergency situations was published by the Chinese ministry of health, five days after the disaster.

Among the responses was a post-disaster mental health aid project aimed at adolescents and children. This was prompted by the fact that many thousands of school children had died, and at least 7,000 school buildings in the province had collapsed.

There were very few counsellors to provide mental health support services to children, said Jun, and teachers were ill-prepared to take on the task.

The challenge was to find quick, effective ways to treat mental problems among the affected children, and to help them get through the traumatic period following the disaster.

The response programme included setting up an education-healthcare mental health platform, based on local educational administrative departments.

A major resource was the West China Hospital of the Sichuan University, which has one of the best mental health centres in China and which formed the core of an expert group providing professional guidance. Support also came from the numerous motivated volunteers.

A pilot study was aimed at collecting evidence through a baseline survey, creating service teams, developing training material and guidelines, equipping facilities, training the trainers, and organising working teams.

The subsequent programme actions included, among others, group therapy for high-risk students, family support and therapy, prevention interventions focusing on single-parent and divorced, training teaching staff to integrate mental health issues into regular teaching, and building school counselling centres.

As an extension of the programme, a mental health outpatient service was set up in villages and towns by training part-time and full-time primary mental health staff.

Lessons learnt included the importance of multi-sector coordination and participation with government leading; the need for a provincial level expert group (consisting of psychiatrists, as well as educational and public health experts) to provide professional guidance; and support from private bodies, both locally and internationally.

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


Can poor countries produce their own drugs?

April 25, 2012

Lia Labuschagne

Lia Labuschagne
Freelance journalist working in Cape Town


Can lower and middle income countries (LMICs) engage in producing the drugs needed to combat neglected tropical diseases? And to what extent do their governments hold the key that will allow them to do so?

Where next? Drug production is the next step after research for low and medium countries (Source: ANDDI)

These questions led to a lively round-table discussion at Forum 2012 chaired by Elizabeth Ponder, associate director for scientific affairs at BVGH in the United States.

Ponder pointed out that neglected diseases affect more than 1 billion people around the world.

Millions of people in resource-poor countries die from these diseases, she said, because life-saving drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics are inaccessible, outdated, unsafe, ineffective – or not yet created.

The challenge was put to a panel representing a wide range of interested government bodies, NGOs, funders, and research laboratories, as well as the private biopharmaceutical sector .

Most panelists agreed that capacity was not the problem; many lower and middle income countries had the scientists and technologies needed to develop the relevant products.

The main problem lay in raising the funding needed to get the drugs into production, and to ensure that they were distributed to where they were required. And this frequently required a political – as well as a financial – commitment.

Jean-Pierre Paccaud, director of business development at Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative in Switzerland, said that it was important to understand the specific needs of the areas in which diseases occurred, and then to focus on leveraging local capacities.

Konji Sebati, director of the department of traditional knowledge and global challenges at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Switzerland, said that lobbying governments was important since “without political will nothing will change”.

According to David Walwyn, chief commercialisation officer with the company iThemba Pharmaceuticals in South Africa, “it is important to articulate clearly to governments what we want, and to set clear targets.”  Universally-accepted goals were needed so that progress could be monitored.

And Alex Ochem, of the African Network for Drugs and Diagnostics Innovation, agreed that the research capacity exists in Africa. But he stressed the sobering truth that “no matter how much research we carry out and articles we publish, if we do not get the product – the medicines – to the market, then we have failed.”

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


How to help Africa rise to the challenge of innovation

April 25, 2012

Lia Labuschagne

Lia Labuschagne
Freelance journalist working in Cape Town


Turning research into innovation is a complex issue. It requires considerable human, financial and other resources. And these must be drawn together by strategies that work within specific local contexts.

At a session at Forum 2012 examining investments that have been made in Africa to address outstanding issues of research and innovation for health and development, Hannah Akuffo, deputy head of the Research Cooperation Unit at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, proposed the creation of a global facility to fund and monitor innovation on the continent.

Anti-malaria bednets in Tanzania: an example of successful African innovation (Credit: Flickr/Prashant Panjiar)

“Governments need to invest innovation, not only in their own countries but also into the continent,” said Akuffo, who believes such a facility could combine practice with training, and both conduct studies on and monitor the evolution of innovation systems.

It would also formulate medium-term strategies and tactics for supporting innovation, and attract partners for collaborative efforts to increase both quantity and quality of innovations, focussing on the need for inclusive development.

Akuffo suggested an international host for such an initiative – ideally an intergovernmental organisation such as UNESO or UNDO – but that there should be a gradual shift of responsibility for specific programmes to the national level.

Partners for regional organisations could come from high-income countries and NGOs. Funding might be drawn from a combination of multinational donors, development banks, donors and international aid organisations involved in science and technology. Partner countries would provide funding out of their regular budgets.

The session was chaired by Peter Ndumbe, responsible for research, publication and library services at the WHO Regional Office for Africa, and included a review of South Africa’s Strategic Management Framework, created to stimulate local health innovation, by Glaudina Loots, director of health innovation at the Department of Science and Technology.

Case studies of successful programmes supporting innovation were presented by Budzanani Tacheba, of the Botswana Innovation Hub, and Hassan Mshinda of the Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology.

Tacheba, quoting Steve Jobs’ comment that “innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower,”  described how the Botswana initiative is aimed at helping the country to compete in global markets, providing a home for knowledge-intensive, technology-driven businesses.

In Tanzania, Mshinda said that research into the way that insecticide-treated nets contribute to the fight against malaria had led to the creation of a successful manufacturing industry that was currently producing 50% of the global output of bednets.

Research had earlier shown that the nets reduce malaria parasitaemia and anaemia by 60%, and improve child survival rates by 27%. A well-planned programme had led to Tanzania’s doubling the value of its export of nets, from US$50 million in 2008 to US$100 million in 2010, and to an industry that now employs employing 7,000 people.

 Innovation is far from dead on the African continent.

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

Lia Labuschagne is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town


Women in science: some progress, but challenges remain

April 24, 2012

Lia Labuschagne

Lia Labuschagne
Freelance journalist working in Cape Town


Women researchers have long explored the frontiers of knowledge, and have in the process made major contributions towards meeting health and development challenges, according to the moderator of a panel discussion at Forum 2012 on the role of women in science in the developing world.

Yet Jill Farrant, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town, and an expert on resurrection plants – plants that can ‘come back to life’ from a desiccated state when rehydrated – pointed out that women have not necessarily received recognition for their achievements.

Jill Farrant: women scientists are often not acknowledged (Credit: UNESCO/L'Oreal Foundation)

For example, said Farrant, one of the 2012 winners of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science, only 16 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to women, compared to more than 500 men.

Nashima  Badsha, an advisor to the South African Minister of Science and Technology, said that gender equality was protected by the country’s constitution, and that, especially in higher education, the statistics were encouraging. Women made up most enrolments and graduates in universities, and at PhD level, the number of women was fast approaching that of men.

But these figures masked less encouraging details. For example, women still only accounted for a third of publishing scientists in South Africa, while black women were under-represented in science, and the overall employment of women in higher education was under 18% – below that in other BRICS countries.

In Brazil, according to Claude Pirmez, vice president for research at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, the number of women holding PhDs was growing strongly. But the highest positions in science were still dominated by men – the Brazilian Academy of Science, for example, remained 90% male.

Javie Ssozi, a digital media consultant from Uganda, described how information and communication technologies were giving women access to opportunities and information sharing. For example, rural women farmers could be given information about new agricultural skills or ways to deal with climate change.

But he added that policies were often not gender sensitive, and that projects could be influenced by cultural issues. For example, men often tried to decide when and how women used their mobile phones.

Finally, for Devaki Nambiar, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Public Health Foundation of India, a key issue was the personal safety of women in society. “If you can’t leave your home in safety, how can you make progress in science and technology?” she asked.

But noticeably, all but one member of the discussion panel were females, and they spoke in front of an audience consisting mainly of women.  Perhaps a case of preaching to the converted?

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

Lia Labuschagne


Greater ST&I investment needed to fight youth unemployment and poverty

April 2, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


The African Conference on Science, Technology and Innovations for Youth Employment, Human Capital Development and Inclusive Growth opened in Nairobi on Sunday with calls for tangible action to use science and technology to fight youth unemployment and poverty.

Speakers at the first day of the conference said the time had come for the continent to use knowledge already in its possession to tackle these double  malaises  which continue to afflict the continent even as scientific and technical advances continue to be made around the world.

“It is now quite clear that the ability of African countries to achieve rapid and inclusive development and [the] ability to compete in the global market lies in their  ability to use science and technology and to creatively innovate, ” said Margaret Kamar, Kenya’s Minister for Education, Science and Technology.

“It is only through this that Africa governments will be able to address some of the most pressing challenges of  human capital  development and youth unemployment,” said the minister at the opening of the conference.

The forum — the very first of its kind in Africa — is sponsored by the United Nations  Education  and Science Council (UNESCO) and the African Development Bank (AFDB).

It aims to generate concrete steps and points of action including a “Nairobi Declaration” on a way forward that addresses the conference’s main themes and the measures that need to be taken to actualise the dream of African economies driven by ST&I.

Delegates include government ministers, bureaucrats and civil society activists and representatives from the private sector.

Lamine Ndiaye, President  of the African Academy of Sciences urged the continent’s governments to increase funding for ST&I, saying the traditional apathy of funding for ST&I would not work for Africa.


G77’s COSTIS – a long time coming and where is it going?

November 22, 2011

Shanghai: venue for COSTIS' first meeting (Flickr/Keith Marshall)

More than a decade after it was initiated, and six years since its launch in 2006,the Group of 77 (G77) countries’ COSTIS (Consortium for Science, Technology and Innovation for the South) will finally hold its first general meeting in Shangai, China in 2012.

A COSTIS-organised meeting on South-South cooperation in science and technology for development was one of a few side events at the 5th World Science Forum, held in Budapest, Hungary last week (17-19 November).

Gretchen Kalonji, assistant director general for Natural Science at UNESCO and Katalin Bogyay, president of the General Conference of UNESCO, both expressed their support for COSTIS and expressed willingness to work together, as some of the aims of the two organisations are closely aligned.

Kalonji urged COSTIS to form a steering committee to ease UNESCO’s collaboration with it.

But neither of the UNESCO representatives stayed for the rest of the brainstorming meeting.

The meeting itself seemed weak in several respects. Although it is a consortium of 77 countries, there were no more than a dozen countries represented by some 20-30 attendees. Some of them did not even know what COSTIS, or indeed the G77 were, or how COSTIS is meant to work.

Others questioned how it differed from TWAS (the Academy of Science for the Developing World). And some, like a delegate from Madagascar, urged the participants to start informal collaborations there and then – by exchanging contact details and possible areas or research collaboration – instead of waiting for high level groups such as G77 to help them do so.

The brainstorming was equally weak, with many of the delegates simply presenting their institutions, or praising their successful science (like the Iranian delegation) in one-way lectures, rather than trying to creatively engage with others and highlight new possibilities for collaboration.

At the end of the meeting, a brief declaration was passed around. A couple of delegates made short comments and attempted to raise some issues with it, but they were advised to e-mail any comments, as the meeting was about to close.

Mićo Tatalović, deputy news editor, SciDev.Net


The long shadow of UNESCO funding cuts

November 20, 2011
Aloizio Mercadante

Brazil's science minister urged support for UNESCO (Credit: Flickr/Agência de Notícias do Acre)

The sudden blow to UNESCO’s budget, following the US freeze on its funding for the organisation after it voted to admit Palestine at its general assembly last month (31 October), cast a shadow over the World Science Forum, which is co-organised by UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

The Brazilian science and technology minister, Aloizio Mercadante, welcomed Palestine’s admission to UNESCO in his plenary lecture yesterday (19 November) and invited the world’s governments to ‘re-invigorate their support for UNESCO’.

There is no organisation like it, he said, that puts so much effort into, and has so much capacity to promote, multilateral science collaborations. He called for involvement of all countries in truly multilateral science collaborations for the benefit of all, not just the interests of individual states being imposed on the international community, hinting presumably at the United States.

Gretchen Kalonji, UNESCO’s assistant secretary-general for Natural Science, said in her plenary lecture that “Despite the fact that UNESCO is going through some challenging times I can personally guarantee that we will re-double our efforts in connections between science and society”.

William Colglazier, science and technology adviser to US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, told SciDev.Net: “Because of congressional legislation the executive branch almost had no choice, so I know the State Department was trying to head it off, because whatever we might feel about trying to help the Palestinians in terms of science – back when I was at the American Academy of Science we had a number of joint projects between Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian scientists – but the worry was there would be, because of the existing law, no choice for the US government but to cut off funds and that was gonna’ have a lot of negative repercussions.”

“I think there was a great sadness at what that impact would be of the sort the symbolic decision that was made,” he said.

“I don’t know what the potential over time is to try and change it. But I certainly think the impacts on UNESCO are unfortunate.”

Mićo Tatalović, deputy news editor, SciDev.Net


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