African Science Initiative

Why Africa Needs to Invest in Health Research

Lily Paemka

Ten years ago, Dr Lily Paemka left Ghana for the US to pursue her PhD studies and stayed. Her talent and skills could have been lost to Ghana forever had the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) not been established. With support from the World Bank’s African Centres of Excellence project and now the Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science (DELTAS) Africa scheme, WACCBIP has set up world class research infrastructure that allows Paemka to conduct the quality research she aspires for to be recognised and established in her field. So she has relocated back home to research on a type of breast cancer that is the most aggressive among Ghanaian women.

DELTAS Africa offers conducive research environments to conduct cutting edge research and develop world class researchers, opportunities that are not easily available on the continent.

Paemka’s story which is increasingly becoming common, shows the impact investing in health research can have on efforts to reverse brain drain. WACCBIP is increasingly able to attract such researchers, recently this has included scientists working on genetic markers for autism and hearing loss, factors that increase the risk of sickle cell patients developing cardiovascular conditions and discovering new targets for malaria vaccines. Some of these diseases are mostly endemic in Africa and so fail to attract global investment.

African governments need to close the gap by investing in creating conducive environments for scientists to thrive to ensure many more return or remain on the continent to research on its health priorities. As Paemka transitions from an early career scientist to a senior scientist, she will attract more funding to research on Africa’s priorities and train younger scientists. When you consider that all the scientists at WACCBIP will follow a similar path to Paemka, the multiplier effects cannot be overemphasized. 

Scientists often leave for developed countries due to poorly resourced laboratories, low salaries, lack of funding and massive teaching loads that leave academics with no time for research. The impact is a diminished research capacity that has seen Africa’s global share of health researchers continue to lag at a meagre 0.3 percent. With no professionals to conduct research, African countries lack the knowledge required to address pressing health challenges and to contain or urgently respond to emergencies such as the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The resulting massive economic losses due to the Ebola outbreak —an estimated $2.2 billion  demonstrate the tremendous cost of neglecting health research.   

This cost will be witnessed at even higher rates in the near future if research is not conducted to address non-communicable diseases(NCDs). The World Health Organization is predicting NCDs to overtake communicable, maternal and perinatal diseases as the leading cause of death in Africa by 2030. Currently, NCDs account for 23 percent of Africa’s disease burden, contributing to a rise in medical costs and impact on human development. Half of the people who die from NCDs are people in their productive years, which is a loss for African society and industries. Investing in research to address diseases, which will have a huge economic burden on Africa will ensure that it sustains its growth.

There has been great progress with some infectious diseases, particularly for malaria and HIV. A 66 percent decline in HIV infection rates among African children between 2010 and 2015 and a drop of 6.5 million malaria deaths between 2001 and 2015 is attributable to huge investments both by international funders and African governments in basic and implementation research focused on improving the health systems and delivery of interventions such as bed nets in the case of malaria and antiretroviral drugs in the case of HIV. A vaccine for malaria is being deployed on pilot in a number of countries, including in Ghana, raising hopes for an intervention to control the disease. This would not have been possible without massive investment in vaccine development. But most of this funding is from international funders. Co-funding from African sources is needed to complement international funding, particularly now when inward-looking policies in the West and cuts in foreign aid threaten to reduce funding for Africa. The private sector also needs to respond to calls to invest in health research on the continent.

Africa needs to invest in health research to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. By 2015, most countries had missed health related Millennium Development Goals because they had not adequately invested in interventions to address the health challenges. This will continue until countries fulfil  commitments made in Bamako in 2008 to spend 2 percent of health budgets on research.

The benefits will be huge, particularly in attracting back young people like Paemka who want to pursue careers in health research.

Dr Alphonse Neba is the Programme Manager for DELTAS Africa, a scheme implemented by the Academy of Sciences and the NEPAD Agency’s Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa

Prof Gordon Awandare is the Director for WACCBIP, University of Ghana

Originally Published in the Daliy Graphic and on African Science Initiative.


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