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UNESCO-MERCK Africa Research Summit (UNESCO-MARS)

The 2nd UNESCO-Merck Africa Research Summit (MARS) was held from          28 to 29 November 2016 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with support from the African Union, the Government of Ethiopia, the University of Cambridge and Institute Pasteur International.

The UNESCO MARS is organized annually to bring together researchers from across Africa to discuss the generation, sharing and dissemination of research data and to prepare for the road ahead to develop Africa as an international hub for research excellence and scientific innovation.

THEME OF THE SUMMIT

Infectious Diseases and Women Health was the focus of the summit. The theme of the summit was informed by the fact that for many infectious diseases, women are at higher risk and have a more severe course of illness than men for many reasons including biological differences, social inequities, and restrictive cultural norms. Therefore, efforts to recognize and reduce health disparities among women have particular relevance for global health. Emphasis was placed on the need to empower women in Research.

OBJECTIVES OF THE FORUM

The 2016 edition was organised with the following objectives:

  • Build research capacity in African scientific research community on health with special focus on “Infectious Diseases and Women Health” and Empowering African Women and Youth in Research.
  • Showcase innovative research taking place in projects, programs and initiatives across African universities and institutes and by the wider African research community
  • Contribute to establishing a road map for enhancing policy environments and mechanisms to support research translation.
  • Discuss challenges, opportunities and proposed strategies to support health decision making in low and middle income countries.
  • Networking opportunities to strength the scientific community and their impact on African society and media communication, where they exchange experience, knowledge, best practice (especially in infectious diseases and women health) and cooperate in future research and development projects.
  • Share knowledge and experience between multi-sectorial global and African research and health stakeholders including diverse set of speakers from major funding organizations of health/medical research, research institutions, established and emergent researchers, academia, NGOs and editors of scientific/medical journals and policy makers of developed and developing countries

PARTICIPANTS

The Summit was inaugurated by Prof. Frank Stangenberg-Haverkamp, Chairperson of the Merck Executive Board, Dr. Rasha Kelej, Chief Social Officer and Vice-President of Merck Healthcare, Mr. Getachew Engida, Deputy Director-General of UNESCO and Hon. Prof. Yifru Berhan, Minister of Health of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

Present at the summit were Ministers and Senior Officials of Science, Education and Health from Angola, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Niger, Sierra Leone and Uganda.

Also present was a delegation of Ambassadors and Senior Delegates from the Permanent Delegations to UNESCO of the following Member States: Angola, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Kenya and Mali.

Delegates from Kenya included H.E. Prof. George I. Godia, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Kenya to UNESCO, Dr. Rashid Aman, Chairperson of the Governing Board of the Kenya National Commission for UNESCO (KNACTOM), Dr. Evangeline Njoka, CEO/Secretary General of KNATCOM and Mr. John Paul Oluoch, Senior Research Assistant, Permanent Delegation of Kenya to UNESCO.

Up to 200 young researchers representing 35 countries in Africa also attended the summit.

The summit gathered participants engaged and interested in scientific research in Africa to learn about the full spectrum of ground breaking research currently underway, and prepare for the road ahead in Africa’s development as an international hub for research excellence and scientific innovation. It also sought to bring together researchers from across Africa to discuss the generation, sharing and dissemination of research data and to prepare for the road ahead in Africa’s development as an international hub for research excellence and scientific innovation.

KENYAN WINS BEST AFRICAN WOMAN RESEARCH AWARD

Launched at the summit was the “Best African Woman Research Awards” to recognize the outstanding contribution of African women researchers and scientists with the aim of promoting women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The first prize was awarded to Beatrice Nyagol from the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

The other award-winning women researchers are from universities and research institutions of, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Gabon, and Uganda. In addition to the five women, two women and two male researchers from Zimbabwe, Gambia and Cameron were recognized for their research under the Best Young African Researcher Award.

The awardees who are final PhD students and young researchers based at African research institutes and universities were selected based on the abstracts they submitted related to Infectious Diseases with the aim to improve Women Health.

An on-line research community (www.merck-cap.com) was also launched as a tool to enable young researchers to exchange experience and knowledge with their peers and with established researchers in Africa and beyond.

MERCK AND UNIVERSITY OF NAIROBI START A MEDICAL ONCOLOGY FELLOWSHIP PROGRAM

Merck informed of its new Africa Medical Oncology Fellowship Program for Sub-Saharan African countries in partnership with University of Nairobi, Kenya. The program is conducted at University of Nairobi and is part of Merck’s efforts to improve access to cancer care and strengthen the healthcare system in emerging markets.

It was noted that the number of oncologists is very limited in Africa. The new program therefore aims to increase the number of qualified oncologists across the continent. Further, the scarcity of trained healthcare personnel capable of tackling prevention, early diagnosis and management of cancer is a bigger challenge in Africa than the lack of financial resources.

In a first step, Merck is sponsor nine medical doctors from Sub-Saharan African countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Africa for a period of two years. The program will be extended to other African countries in the following year. Moreover, Merck will support another five African doctors to participate in a paediatric and adult medical fellowship program, which will be held annually in a leading hospital in Mumbai, India.

KEY OUTCOMES

The Summit focused on the relation between infectious diseases and cancer in women, untreated infectious diseases and the high prevalence of infertility in Africa. Participants sought to identify the scientific research priorities for evolving health needs to address infectious diseases such as Malaria, Schistosomiasis and Zika in relation to women heath.  

Participants benefitted from various sessions in form of speeches, keynote lecturers and panel discussion delivered by a diverse set of speakers from academia, research institutions, major funding organizations on health/medical research, chairs of medical research councils, NGOs, industry, established and emerging researchers, policy makers, ministers of health/science from the AU member states among others. 

There was specific emphasis on how to translate knowledge into action by improving the way scientific research is conducted to address multiple challenges. The summit provided a platform for dialogue on improving global cooperation in life sciences, health research and particularly women's healthcare, and narrowing the disparities in health system performance between developing and developed countries.

Scientific research in the life sciences and health is recognised as a fundamental component of effective health systems and the need to perform such research should be considered a priority in counties where health challenges constitute a burden to economic productivity and sustainable development. Research in many of the diseases which afflict the world’s poorest people is neglected for financial, scientific, or political reasons; and there is a huge global inequality in the resources devoted to life science research and only a small proportion of these resources benefit countries where the majority of preventable deaths occur.

It was highlighted that the role of scientific research has become increasingly prominent in health and development strategies. Building research capacity therefore requires strengthening institutions and sustainable funding, but also the training of researchers, and strong national commitment to science education at all levels. The example of the UNESCO-MERCK cooperation was highlighted a symbol of the emergent need of creating sustainable partnerships among heterogeneous actors, to support research in life and health sciences in Africa.

Scientific research in the life sciences and health is a fundamental component of effective health systems, and must be a priority in the sustainable development strategies of countries where health challenges constitute a socio-economic burden. The need to develop capacity in health research was recognized in the Africa Agenda 2063 and the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 (STISA-2024) which was adopted in 2013 by the African Union Summit.

Also, effective health policy and practice should be fully informed by evidence generated through research. The successful translation of evidence to policy operates within a complex social setting that is specific and localised, and therefore requires dialogue between researchers, policy makers, the pharmaceutical industry and civil society.

Building research capacity requires strengthening institutions and sustainable funding, but also the training of researchers, and strong national commitment to science education at all levels. It was highlighted that one of the major challenges for the growth of the research sector is that there is a gap between funding and retention of experts. The amount of research that is coming out of Africa, when compared to the rest of the world is very low. African countries therefore need to allocate more than 1% of gross domestic product to research, if the continent is to make headway with its development agenda.

Creating an enabling environment for research and building capacity for life sciences and health research were stressed as being fundamental to improving people’s wellbeing in communities and countries across the continent.

For Africa to be an international hub for research excellence and scientific information, it was underlined that there is need to:

  • Find innovative funding mechanisms.
  • Set research agendas that promote the participation of local communities.
  • Foster dialogue between stakeholders, research institutions and their ministries of health will help in translating research findings in policy and practice.
  • Strengthen communication with regional and international health policymakers to understand global health issues and priorities.
  • Train more scientists to the highest standards
  • Develop mentorship and twinning programmes

Permanent Delegation of Kenya to UNESCO

December, 2016

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