KAMPALA – It’s been three months since the Coronavirus, code-named Covid-19, emerged in China. Reports from global media giants CNN and Aljazeera as of February 17th, 2020 indicate that the global death toll stands at 1770 with the majority of these deaths being in mainland China. Moreover, 70548 cases of infection have been reported. Despite various efforts to rein in this deadly pestilence, infections continue to skyrocket.
In order to make informed decisions about prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases, the role of reliable and robust scientific evidence cannot be under looked at. It is imperative for high quality research to continually be conducted to generate this evidence. A brilliant example of how health research can stop a pandemic in its tracks is that of smallpox. In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner developed the first-ever vaccine against smallpox, a disease that brutally killed about 300 million people. Prior to this historic breakthrough, Dr. Jenner had carried out a number of experiments. The vaccine eventually eradicated the disease.
A host of other examples remain for our reference such as Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1929 which is still in use today. Many tools or appliances used daily, medicines, and vaccines that safeguard our health are a result of countless health and other professionals diligently conducting research.
In Uganda, the THRiVE Consortium (Training Health Researchers into Vocational Excellence), located at Makerere University’s College of Health Sciences, is building a network of health researchers to find solutions to health problems in their communities. Established in 2009, THRiVE has supported 50 Ph.D. and postdoctoral fellows to generate scientific evidence through research. THRiVE defines good scientific evidence as information derived from research that uses robust and reliable scientific methodologies. For example, through research, Prof. Moses Galukande, one of the THRiVE fellows, has been able to explore a new approach of augmenting the treatment of breast cancer. He found a protein that protects breast cancer cells from chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The next step is to block this protein as a way of augmenting current treatment methods. In addition, he has established the frequency of four types of breast cancer among Ugandan women by testing certain characteristics of the cancer cell surface. Despite the fact that the study is still a work in progress, these early results could lead to a breakthrough in breast cancer treatment outcomes.
Additionally, in another recent study on improving the accuracy of heart failure diagnosis in low-resource settings Dr. Emmy Okello, a consultant cardiologist at the Uganda Heart Institute, observed that when non-expert health workers are trained to conduct an ultrasound scan of the heart (echocardiography), the diagnosis of heart failure among populations in low resource settings was improved. Owing to the fact that heart failure is a common pathway for most heart diseases, its diagnosis and treatment is key in improving survival and outcome among patients with heart disease. The study findings have been adopted by the Pan African Society of Cardiology and this diagnostic approach will be scaled up as a model for increasing access to cardiac care where there are no experts across the African continent.
Currently, lots of health research is ongoing in the country but there is still a need for more researchers, especially women. One way of cultivating the desired pool of health researchers is through mentorship programs, the formation of research networks to enhance collaboration and increasing research funds.
On the other hand, health researchers ought to involve various publics such as the non-academic public, policymakers, and media in setting research priorities, research design and implementation, and the dissemination of research evidence in order to promote understanding and uptake of research results.
Typically, health research should not only generate knowledge but lead to action for improved health wellbeing.
The writer, Prof. Nelson Sewankambo, is the director of THRiVE (Training Health Researchers into Vocational Excellence)