NIH director Dr. Francis Collins visited a mobile HIV/AIDS testing and counseling clinic during a tour of NIH-supported research activities in Soweto.
Photo: Ann Puderbaugh
NIH director Dr. Francis Collins recently spent time in South Africa cultivating two new international ventures he’s supporting through the Common Fund and visiting a number of NIH-funded research sites.
In Cape Town, he participated in a 2-day gathering of geneticists in discussing how to shape the Human Heredity and Health in Africa Initiative, which aims to encourage the study of genomics and environmental determinants of common diseases with the goal of improving the health of African populations. A partnership with the Wellcome Trust, the program will help develop the necessary expertise among African scientists and establish networks of African investigators.
In Johannesburg, Collins joined the inaugural meeting of the Medical Education Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is intended to strengthen training in sub-Saharan Africa to improve the quality and quantity of health care workers available.
With funding from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and NIH, the program supports awards in a dozen African countries, jointly administered by Fogarty and the Health Resources and Services Administration. Seventeen NIH institutes and centers and the Common Fund are participating in the initiative that will invest up to $130 million over 5 years.
“This is a hopeful time,” observed Dr. Francis Omaswa, co-leader of MEPI’s coordinating center. He opened the gathering, calling it “the largest-ever meeting of African medical educators…we are making history...this is really a milestone in Africa’s development.”
The more than 230 participants included several African ministers of health, deans and faculty of the region’s leading medical schools, two U.S. ambassadors and numerous African and American collaborators.
Despite its enormous population and burden of disease, sub-Saharan Africa has only a fraction of the health care workers it needs, Collins told the group.
MEPI will also encourage researchers by addressing the lack of infrastructure and support to make research a viable career, protected time to conduct investigations and the data management necessary for population studies, Collins said.
MEPI is unique in that it empowers African leaders to define local needs and develop the most appropriate solutions, said Eric Goosby, the U.S. global AIDS coordinator. He called for “sustained intellectual honesty” and an acknowledgement of “the important role that research plays in anchoring an inquiring mind” in clinical as well as scientific work, both “essential to improving the quality of care.”
MEPI’s African leaders should think creatively and experiment with new ways of teaching, said Fogarty director Dr. Roger Glass. “We have great hopes for what you can achieve.”
Collins also visited the University of Cape Town and several field research sites in the area, in addition to meeting with scientists from NHLBI’s Center of Excellence, focused on addressing the growing problem of chronic disease. In addition, he met with scientists at the University of Witwatersrand’s research operation in Soweto and visited a mobile HIV/AIDS diagnosis and counseling unit. During a trip to Durban, he toured the NIAID-funded Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and visited its rural Vulindlela research site.