Universities pool resources to fight common diseases

A new university initiative has been launched targeting health research areas that receive minimal support from international donors in the East Africa region, but have a devastating effect on local populations.

Run by the schools of health sciences in Makerere University in Uganda and Mount Kenya University, or MKU, in Kenya, the joint initiative will facilitate research and development of innovations to address health challenges brought about by climate change and disease outbreaks such as Ebola, which have a direct impact on the economies of affected countries.

The initiative will benefit from a joint research fund established by the universities’ foundations to address common health issues affecting the region.

Research focus areas will include non-communicable diseases, neglected tropical diseases, communicable diseases with a high burden, and disabilities in East Africa such as cancer.

Makerere University and MKU have already contributed an initial US$100,000 in seed money towards the initiative, and it is expected that other universities in the region will also contribute. A team of renowned researchers has been put together to steer the fund and its research activities.

According to Dr Stanley Kangethe, principal investigator at MKU, East African universities will collaborate in offering joint training and enabling research for undergraduate and postgraduate students through exchange programmes.

“We expect that before the end of this year the other universities will come on board,” Kangethe told University World News, adding that a call for university students to apply for the research funding is already out.

“The amount contributed by the universities will target the specific research programmes the universities want to jointly collaborate on, but all the funds towards the research will be administered through the two institutions.”

He said that research proposals submitted by students will be subjected to peer review to ensure that they meet the criteria matching the universities’ standards in the region.

The main aim of the initiative is to stimulate communication, cooperation and partnerships between universities in East Africa, to encourage the exchange of students and faculty, and to develop a twinned curriculum, thus enhancing educational quality and the resources of both institutions.

It will also help to make information on the academic programmes of both colleges available so that students can take full advantage of existing international educational opportunities, and ensure that universities in the region recognise each other as partners in training and research.

In a statement, Professor Stanley Waudo, vice-chancellor of MKU, said the universities will work together as equal partners towards the improvement of higher education in the region.

“The competitive advantages that will be derived from the partnership between the universities will enhance the visibility, presence, openness and excellence of the two partner institutions,” said Waudo.

Makerere University Vice-chancellor Barnabas Nawangwe told University World News that the aim of the initiative was to provide home-grown solutions to problems facing East Africa.

"That way, our region can spearhead innovations that avert huge economic losses, morbidity and mortality beyond the capacity of the affected regions.”

Nawangwe noted that through such collaborations, East African universities will be more likely to compete with institutions within the region and on the continent, especially in the areas of research and innovation.

“[This will create] synergy that results in both effective implementation of the institutional mission and … [the establishment of] training centres of excellence that promote quality training and the sharing of best practice,” said Nawangwe.

He said that the partnership will enhance training and research in both universities, and unite the East African region in the long term.

East Africa faces the challenge of the double burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases, compounded by a shortage in health workers and inadequate access to quality health services by a majority of the population living in rural areas.