A Fresh Look at Infectious Disease Research in Africa


Thirty of the world’s leading infectious disease researchers gathered at Harvard on October 19th and 20th to brainstorm about the future of deadly diseases in Africa.

While modern medicine and technology have diminished the threat of many infectious disease pathogens in high-income countries, infectious diseases account for more than 17 million deaths worldwide every year. A significant number of those deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Harvard has a long history of research collaborations with African universities and NGOs. While most research has centered on a particular disease such as HIV/AIDS or malaria, research findings often have broad implications for global health practice and policy.

The threats of emerging and re-emerging infectious agents are ever-present. Social and environmental changes associated with urbanization, increases in population mobility, and the widespread use of medications have resulted in significant changes in the dynamics of human disease. While sub-Saharan Africa bears the burden of most major infectious disease pathogens, the prevention and control of new outbreaks is a global problem that requires global cooperation.

In an effort to foster future collaborative research within Harvard and between African colleagues, experts gathered for Focus on Africa: Infectious Diseases from Basic Science to New Technologies. The workshop was organized around two themes: 1) How does pathogen and host diversity impact the determinants of pathogenicity and 2) What is the impact of pathogen and host diversities on the implementation of new technologies for disease prevention, diagnosis, and monitoring?

The workshop was led by Dr. Phyllis Kanki, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and an expert in the pathogenesis and molecular epidemiology of HIV in Africa and Dr. Thumbi Ndung’u, the Scientific Director of the HIV Pathogenesis Program at the Doris Duke Medical Research Institute, Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, University of KwaZulu-Natal. Kanki helped establish Harvard’s AIDS research program in Senegal in 1985 and launched Harvard’s ambitious efforts in Nigeria in 2000. Ndung’u received his PhD from Harvard and worked as the first Research Director of the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership, which was established in 1996.

The 30 workshop participants included Harvard scientists and colleagues from Botswana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Many of the participants are currently collaborating or have worked together in the past. Dr. Richard Marlink, Executive Director of the Harvard AIDS Initiative, remarked, “Because we’ve known each other for so many years, it’s like coming home for Thanksgiving. You’ve been in touch throughout the year, but then you have the opportunity to be together for a few days. You pick up where you left off.”

It was a homecoming of sorts for Dr. Ireen Kiwelu, recently named Head of the Research at Kilimanjaro Clinical Research Institute in Tanzania. Though she received her PhD last year from Kilimanjaro Christian Medical College, she conducted much of her research in the Harvard lab of noted AIDS researcher Dr. Max Essex. Kiwelu gave one of several Early Career Presentations. “The workshop was fruitful,” said Kiwelu, who hopes to begin new collaborations with scientists she met from Europe and Africa. As Dr. Prosper Okonkwo, the CEO of AIDS Prevention Initiative in Nigeria (APIN) said, “The contacts that one is making here, one hopes going forward, will also facilitate stronger south-south collaborations.”

“Everybody came away with at least one or two ideas about new things they might like to do, new projects, new approaches,” said Kanki.

Dr. Max Essex, Chair of the Harvard AIDS Initiative and the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership, summed it up. “The workshop was valuable for two reasons. It brought together people from Africa who feel truly connected to Harvard and are enthusiastic about collaborations with faculty and students here. It also showed how we can build successful programs that include both colleagues at Harvard and colleagues from sub-Saharan Africa. All of the people at the workshop have well-established, long-standing commitments in Africa. You could feel confident that whatever is done next will be a serious, long-term endeavor.”

Focus on Africa was part of the Academic Ventures Program at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.

Title photo by Don Hamel. Click here for a list of workshop participants.