Infectious diseases and women’s health: boosting research in Africa

Africa bears a disproportionate burden of disease. Yet, research on the diseases that afflict the world’s poorest people is often neglected for financial, scientific, or political reasons; and the resources invested in life science and health research are unequally distributed, with only a small proportion benefitting countries where the majority of preventable deaths occur. UNESCO and Merck have been working together in order to improve cooperation between African public research institutes and the global private sector, notably the pharmaceutical industry, in order to boost research capacity and empower the African scientific community and decision makers to address the challenges linked to infectious disease in Africa. In this context, the Second UNESCO-Merck Africa Research Summit (UNESCO MARS 2016) took place on 28-29 November 2016 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

As the recent outbreak of the Zika virus has shown, women are particularly vulnerable. With this in mind, the conference will focus on “Infectious Diseases and Women’s Health”. The conference thus contributed to the Global Action Agenda for Women’s Health, adopted during the 1st World Women’s Health and Development Forum. It also provided an opportunity to examine how accurate and up-to-date research can be used to inform policy makers and the public, to strengthen countries’ ability to respond to public health emergencies of such as Zika. There was specific emphasis on how to translate knowledge into action - the 'know-do gap' - to improve the way scientific research is conducted to address multiple challenges. More widely, 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 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 is 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.

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. The UNESCO-MARS summit responded to these needs by fostering sustainable partnerships among heterogeneous actors, to support research in life and health sciences in Africa. A Ministerial Panel discussion on the role of scientific research in infectious diseases in Africa, counting with the participation of 15 Ministers of Science, Health and Education from Africa, followed the opening session on 28 November.
This second edition of the summit was organized in partnership with the African Union and hosted by the Federal Government of Ethiopia. The University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), the University of Rome Tor Vergata (Italy) and the Institut Pasteur (France) provided scientific support. In order to encourage the participation of early career scientists, up to 200 young researchers from 35 Africa countries were sponsored and presented their scientific abstracts.

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