Disease control congress a first for SA

Jasson Urbach | 01 Apr 2014
Cape Times
THIS week, in a first for South Africa, Cape Town is hosting the prestigious 16th International Congress on Infectious Diseases

About 2 500 scientists and experts specialising in infectious diseases from 120 countries will gather to hear about the latest ground-breaking research, progress and challenges facing infectious disease control. While much can be learned, those attending, and indeed those of us who are not, should be mindful of the political and ideological obstacles to ridding the world of infectious diseases. The developing world, Africa in particular, bears the greatest burden of the most deadly infectious diseases, which include HIV/Aids, malaria and TB. According to the World Bank, a staggering 99 percent of people who die from these three diseases live in the developing world. Of the approximately 34 million people living with HIV/Aids, over two-thirds live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford biologist and feted doomsayer, famously predicted, and continues to predict, widespread famines and an increase in diseases. Ehrlich is also famously wrong. Although global populations continue to increase, agricultural technologies ensure that fewer and fewer of us are hungry and greater access to safe and effective vaccines, medicines, and public health insecticides has reduced the burden of disease. Average life expectancies globally are increasing, with fewer new HIV infections and an evergrowing number of people receiving antiretroviral treatment. Malaria has been steadily declining too, thanks to increased donor-funded efforts to control the disease.

Such progress should not lead to complacency however. Malaria still claims an estimated 660 000 lives each year, mostly children in Africa. Children who survive often suffer cognitive impairment, blighting their futures and leaving them less able to be productive. Southern Africa has made the most dramatic progress, so that now four countries - South Africa, Swaziland, Botswana, and Namibia - have in sight the total elimination of malaria. The region has long supported malaria research, measuring progress, experimenting with different strategies, and understanding what works best. Ministers of health in the region took advice from scientists and implemented evidence-based strategies, such as indoor spraying with the insecticide DDT. 

South Africa has long secured local funding for malaria control, which has meant that disease control experts could get on and do their jobs without having to worry about the vagaries and somewhat mercurial nature of donor agencies. Research into new and essential tools to fight infectious diseases in Africa must continue. Many of the obstacles to improving health outcomes, such as weak infrastructure, bureaucratic hurdles and the stark reality of millions of poor individuals who can barely sustain themselves, however, will continue to hamper the fight against infectious diseases.

Urbach is director of Africa Fighting Malaria. The congress is at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from tomorrow to Saturday. Khaya Dlanga is away.