Updated 24 May 2019

Fund launched to seek cures for African diseases

A new research fund aims to raise the quality of scientific output on the African continent and tackle diseases like HIV/AIDS, malaria and Ebola.

An African research fund recently launched in Kenya aims to raise the quality of Africa's scientific output and tackle diseases primarily affecting the world's poorest continent, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and Ebola.

The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), based at the African Academy of Sciences in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, aims to draw increased funding from the West and African governments to set up centres of scientific excellence on the continent.

A grant of $70 million

"What AESA hopes to achieve is to look at the major diseases that are already epidemics, the neglected tropical diseases and the emerging challenges like Ebola and really build the capacities to try and deal with these challenges," AESA Director Tom Kariuki told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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"We want good scientists trained and retained on the continent, and rewarded to do the work that they do."

Africa has the smallest number of scientists per capita of any continent as professionals often move abroad to further their careers, Kariuki said. Scientists funded by AESA will work towards creating new vaccines, products and services for diseases that primarily affect Africans, he said.

When the 2014 Ebola epidemic broke out in West Africa, donors launched an emergency appeal for research aimed at managing the deadly virus better. Potential vaccines moved from the laboratory to the field in record time.

"It is first and foremost our responsibility as African scientists, as African governments, to actually make sure we are prepared for these sort of emergencies," said Kariuki. AESA has announced a grant of $70 million to support seven African researchers working on issues such as mental health in Zimbabwe, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in South Africa and malaria in Mali.

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The World Health Organisation has called on countries which are home to 17 priority neglected tropical diseases, such as sleeping sickness, rabies and bilharzia, affecting 1.5 billion people worldwide, to invest more in overcoming them. All the diseases are hard to diagnose and have few drugs available for treatment, and there is no vaccine for any of them, Kariuki said.

Africa accounts for 15 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its disease burden, but produces only two percent of the world's research, according to the Wellcome Trust, one of the world's largest medical charities. The Trust provided seed money for AESA, along with the Gates Foundation and the British government. The fund is asking African governments to invest one percent of GDP in scientific work.

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