Keeping tabs on HIV, and intervening

The Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies based in Mtubatuba, KwaZulu-Natal, has received a major funding boost of £15-million over a five-year period from the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom to undertake cutting-edge research in HIV/Aids. The Africa Centre is a joint initiative of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the Medical Research Council of South Africa. Over the years the centre has created Africa’s most comprehensive programme for local people living with HIV/Aids, and carried out clinical trials in a range of areas of critical importance to health in developing countries.

Subject to a three-year review, the centre will use the funding from the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest medical research charity, to improve the health status of people in the area, with a particular focus on HIV infection.

“The research at the Africa Centre, situated in rural northern KwaZulu-Natal is unique, cutting-edge and of profound importance to the understanding of and interventions on the HIV/Aids epidemic locally and globally,” says Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, UKZN’s vice-chancellor. “The funding from the Wellcome Trust is a welcome boost that serves as an inspiration to the programme itself and the scientists researching at the centre. UKZN is honoured to be associated with this centre of excellence.”

Initiated in 1998 in KwaZulu-Natal, the Africa Centre carries out a multidisciplinary programme of research reflecting population and health priorities in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly HIV. Recent successes of the centre include a study showing the importance of exclusive breastfeeding in preventing transmission of HIV from mother to child.

“The Wellcome Trust grant will help us in our goal of keeping HIV-negative people negative and HIV-infected people optimally cared for,” says Professor Marie-Louise Newell, director of the centre. “In South Africa, as in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa, HIV is a major problem, compounded as it is by poverty, migration and lack of access to effective treatments.”

With the funding from the Wellcome Trust, the Africa Centre aims to address questions that will inform the development of appropriate interventions for a community with an HIV prevalence in adults of over 20% and high levels of poverty and unemployment. Researchers at the centre will monitor the impact of HIV on individuals, their households and the wider community, combining data collected within the bi-annual household survey with that from the annual individual-level HIV, health and behaviour surveillance.

In particular, the researchers will look at key questions, such as how communities, households and individuals are affected by simultaneous epidemics of HIV, sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis; how HIV-uninfected people can be supported to remain uninfected; how best to deliver HIV-related health care in a low-income, resource-poor setting; and how to improve the health of children and adults in an environment challenged by HIV and other adversities. The researchers will extend their HIV research to the over-50s, a vastly under-researched group.

The Africa Centre will also play an important role in monitoring and evaluating the anti-retroviral (ARV) treatment programme currently being rolled out across Africa, the largest public health programme ever contemplated on the continent. The centre is one of the few settings where the effects of ARV delivery can be monitored and evaluated comprehensively at both population and individual level, through data collected within the population-based HIV and household surveillance linked with the clinical cohort information collected within the HIV-ARV programme.

“The impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on societies is without precedent in recorded human history, and South Africa is particularly severely affected,” says Newell. “In the last three years, there has been an enormous effort to roll out ARVs across sub-Saharan Africa. Over the coming five years, the Africa Centre will evolve from a research centre focused on description to one focused on intervention and implementation. The detailed knowledge of the population obtained since 2000, in addition to the well-resourced ARV programme in the sub-district, uniquely places the Africa Centre to answer our primary research question: what is the long-term impact for the population of a well-functioning and comprehensive ARV programme in a resource-poor, rural setting?”

The Africa Centre is one of four major overseas programmes run by Wellcome Trust. Others include programmes in Kenya, looking in particular at malaria and childhood infections, and in Malawi, focusing on health problems of local and regional significance such as malaria, HIV, anaemia, tuberculosis and other bacterial and viral infections.

TUT’s new chancellor: Mlambo-Ngcuka

Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has been appointed chancellor of Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). She succeeds Dr Adelaide Tambo, TUT’s first chancellor, who died in January.

Council chairperson Vusi Mat-lhare said: “It is a singular honour for TUT to have a leader of the calibre of Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka as its titular head. The TUT council has started — and would like to continue — the tradition of women chancellors at TUT, although it could obviously not bind future TUT councils. In doing this, we recognise the immense contribution of women to society.”

Errol Tyobeka, TUT vice- chancellor, said that Mlambo-Ngcuka would lend stature to the university. He welcomed her as a member of the TUT family and said she was an example in the way she led from the front and in the high professional standards she maintained. “She is also well versed in the science of education.”

Her academic achievements include a BA in social science and education (1980) and an MPhil in educational planning and policy (2003). She was awarded an honorary doctorate by Technikon Witwatersrand in 2003.

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