Merck, UNESCO and Cambridge University Unite To Accelerate Health Innovations in Africa

Kenyan scientists have scooped 20 of the 100 scholarships to attend the prestigious annual global UNESCO-Merck Africa Research Summit (MARS) in Switzerland.

The researchers drawn from African Population Health Research Center, University of Nairobi, Kenya Medical Research Institute, Jommo Kenyatta University of Arts and Technology, Baringo County Referral Hospital among others will get opportunity to attend the summit sponsored by Merck, UNESCO, Cambridge University and University of Rome.

Merck, the world’s oldest pharmaceutical and chemical company in partnership with UNESCO, Cambridge University and University of Rome plan to conduct the UNESCO-Merck Africa Research Summit (MARS), to map out ways of turning Africa into an international hub for research excellence and scientific innovation.

Rasha Kelej, Vice President and Head of Global Business Social Responsibility and Market Development, Merck said the annual summit aims to contribute to building research capacity in the African research community, with special focus on Ebola and emergent infectious diseases.

“It also aims to Identify Scientific Research Priorities for Evolving Health Needs, and identify opportunities to capitalise on HIV Research Capacities for Emerging Infectious Diseases in Africa such as Ebola,” said Kelej.

The Merck Africa Research Summit dubbed Accelerating Access and Sustaining Innovation brings together researchers from across Africa to discuss the generation, sharing and dissemination of research data with the aim of identifying development opportunities that will accelerate access to innovative health solutions and sustain innovation in Africa.

The Summit slated to take place next month in Switzerland, will showcase innovative research taking place in projects, programs and initiatives across African universities, and by the wider African research community in a bid to empower young African researchers.

Top on the agenda is discussions on the role of research in fostering sustainable development of the health of the population with specific emphasis on how to translate knowledge into action - the 'know-do gap' - to improve health and make an impact on society.

This summit will provide a networking platform for dialogue on improving global cooperation on health research and narrowing the disparities in health systems performance between developing and developed countries.

Kelej said the MARS seeks to create an African researchers’ network where scientists will exchange experiences, share knowledge, best practice (especially in Ebola management) and cooperation in future research and development projects.

One of the winners from Kenya Patrick Mwaura a student of Jommo Kenyatta University of Arts and Technology described the scholarship as an important opportunity for him as a budding scientist to network and enrich his knowledge.

“There are scientists who I have just heard about or read their work but through this forum I plan to engage them in discussions that will help me strategies on how to hone my skills in research and development,” said Mwaura.

Of his abstract that won him a place at the MARS, Mwaura said he has interest in stem cell research and during this summit he hopes to meet other scientists interested in the area which he sees as an important area in medicine.

Mwaura submitted an abstract titled "Exploratory Generation of Murine Mesenchymal Stem Cells, And Investigation of their Anti-Inflammatory Potential".

Another scientist who got a scholarship is Dr Djesika Amendah, a researcher with African Population Health Research Center. Her abstract is entitled “Building Research Capacity in Health Systems in Africa. Experience from African Doctoral Recitation Research Fellowship.”

Amendah described infectious diseases as a continuing burden in Kenya and Africa and hence important for researchers to interact and build on each other’s strengths to tackle existing challenges.

She identified Health Systems Strengthening as an integral part in dealing with emerging and infectious diseases given that countries will not realise that there is an epidemic until they start losing many lives.

Look at a country like Guinea, Ebola had presented six months earlier but because the health systems were weak they did not know until the epidemic was spreading with very many deaths reported” explained Amendah.

From the MARS Amendah hopes to better understand the trends in pharmaceutical companies with the aim of improving her research work for improved livelihoods.

On his part, Paul Yonga, the Deputy Head Internal Medicine at Baringo County Referral Hospital said he was eager to brainstorm with more established researchers in order for him to see how he can proactively play a bigger part in tackling infectious diseases in the country.

I want to learn what people are doing in terms of research into diseases like Ebola and how I can advance my skills,” said Yonga. He pointed out that the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa was a clear demonstration that most countries have weak disease surveillance systems and hence important to improve them.

Yonga said he was privileged to attend the MARS and plans to use this event to push his research abstract titled High mortality Rate and late presentation of HIV/HBV co-infected patients with hepatic de-compensation in a rural Kenyan Hospital.

In 2015, the inaugural Summit will have a special focus on HIV and Ebola, highlighting how experiences gained from investigating the former could inform and drive the rapid understanding of the latter in the recent Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Diverse sets of speakers from Academia, Research institutes, major funding organizations of health/medical research, Chairs of Medical Research Councils, NGOs, Industry, established and emergent researchers, policy makers, ministries of health and editors of scientific / medical journals, etc., will be participating.

Up to 100 scientists from Africa received full sponsorship to attend the Summit and benefit from the scientific program and development opportunities geared towards accelerating access to innovative health solutions and sustain innovation in Africa.

Abstracts were invited from final year African PhD students and young investigators involved in HIV, Ebola and other infectious diseases research. All abstracts were required to be primarily based at African research institutes and Universities, although collaboration within Africa as well as outside was encouraged.

All abstracts were peer reviewed and certified if eligible for sponsorship with the first three winners being eligible for further number of research awards and fellowship in Merck Research & Development hub.

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