COUNTDOWN in South Africa – new friendships, thoughts and directions

By Russell Stothard, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

Returning from Magaliesburg in South Africa and sitting here early on a Saturday morning in Heathrow waiting for a flight to a snowy Manchester, I am really proud of what COUNTDOWN has achieved this past week. As both co-organiser and participant in the International Workshop on NTDs and importance of Female Genital Schistosomiasis (FGS) and its impact on HIV/AIDS, I represented both the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and our research consortium. Moreover, I was joined by Kate Hawkins our communications expert and by colleagues from Ghana, Benjamin Marfo who was representing Nana Biritwum, and Margaret Gyapong. We were also expecting Louis-Albert Tchuem-Tchuente from Cameroon to join us but he was called away last minute to Nigeria to represent WHO-AFRO in revision of their national Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) plan but very fortunate given our future there.

Once in Magaliesburg and as co-organiser with Myra Taylor (The University of KwaZulu-Natal), Eryun Kejtland (The Oslo University Hospital), Jutta Reinhard-Rupp and Claudia Cecalupo (Merck-Serono), we finalised on-site arrangements. This included tailoring the agenda with the final list of participants who were set to arrive the next day, 75 in total and collectively coming from USA, Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. We then performed a detailed cross-check and walk-through of all on-site logistics whilst being made aware of frequent power outages and their contingencies. Our Monday evening review meeting, for example, was held by candle-light owing to a particularly impressive electrical storm disrupting local supplies that night. Of course, there were surprises and for me it was being nominated by my co-organisers to give the Tuesday evening welcome dinner speech, a well set ambush perhaps despite our prior weekly teleconference calls from November!

So with microphone in hand and overcoming my nerves in front of such a very distinguished audience inclusive of WHO-Geneva and international donors, I gave my personal expectations for the following days. This was to be a very good thing for I find the most important beginning point of any small conference is to develop a friendly and social dialogue with its participants. This is crucial if you want to see the fruits of frank and open discussions evolve as often first undertaken by people who have never before met and also come to the agenda with very divergent experiences. Thus to do so from the onset people must be made to feel comfortable within such a larger group, and that their own opinion and contribution was to be valued and considered evenly with our own expectations.

Indeed the fruits of informed conversation grew and at the end of the workshop, it was evident that this was a key achievement of this meeting for all became increasingly animated and excited by this new cross-talk between NTDs and HIV. We discovered shared ground and addressed several issues ranging from access to diagnostics and treatment, gender and age-related inequities, primary health care services and better clinical management to future steps and studies to be taken and turned into best policies and optimal practices.

Kate, Margaret, Benjamin and I felt very motivated with the outcomes from this meeting and how it will be turned into tangible research and future policy repositioning within Ghana, starting this coming week (so my thanks to Margaret and Benjamin for being so quick to take action)! Indeed, we look forward to supporting this research uptake with targeted studies to be undertaken on the ground when deemed appropriate. This will be further discussed and developed across our partners within our inception workshop during the second week of March in the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, so you will hear more in due course.

So key highlights for me this past week? I had the good fortune to arrive at the airport with Barbara Mukasa from Mildmay and with it the opportunity to chat about our experiences in Uganda while waiting for transportation. As I have conducted many field surveys in the remoter areas of her country for NTDs, I have always been impressed by the community outreach that Mildmay has had in facilitating access to health services for HIV and AIDS. I have only met Barbara a couple of times before and only discussed with her intestinal schistosomiasis which is more prevalent in Uganda but in this conference with the focus on urogenital schistosomiasis she really grasped the importance of FGS in the context of her own work both in children and in adults.

Moreover, Barbara gave a really touching presentation highlighting the holistic view Mildmay has in supporting children as well as their carers, with real honesty by appreciating the often shortcomings of human behaviour which can range from the darker side of deception and violence to the lighter side of compassion and love. In the context of safe childhood, with a gynaecological disease such as FGS we should also remain vigilant to often cryptic signs of sexual abuse and coercion as well as the unfortunate stigmatisation and low self-esteem that this disease can induce with its signs and symptoms. This made me think more deeply about the pressing need for social science studies and assessment of burden of disease at the psycho-social level.

Other personal highlights included: seeing Kate very busy blogging and Tweeting about the issues being raised and helping me to get to grips with the newer side of social media; reading Alan Fenwick’s blog about our workshop after the first day from his perspective as Director of the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative; meeting with Refilwe Sello a HIV/reproductive health specialist from the FHI360 South African office and seeing her become enthused about NTDs; meeting again Peter Leutcher who I had last seen in 1997 in Madagascar while working with the Institut Pasteur Antananarivo and listening to his really authoritative keynote address on Male Genital Schistosomiasis and its implications; and finally helping my colleagues Myra, Eryun and Jutta draw attention to the need and use of donated praziquantel in South Africa by supporting direct engagement with stakeholders from the local Ministry and local HIV-action groups.

But what did I learn? In line with my own research on techniques and tools for diagnosis of schistosomiasis, there is an unmet need for new diagnostics for female genital schistosomiasis, especially in girls younger that their first sexual debut where a gynaecological examination cannot be performed for obvious reasons. Better access to praziquantel treatment in both pre-school-age and school-age is crucial if we are to prevent the later occurrence of FGS where it can be measured albeit with rather cumbersome invasive methods, i.e. by colposcopy. To that end, my colleague Amaya Bustinduy drew attention to the common plight of pre-school-aged children and that we must consider higher praziquantel dosing than the present 40 mg/kg and at shorter intervals, biannual or more for example, rather than the annual treatment regime. All this to be also set within access to Anti Retroviral Therapies in children with schistosomiasis-HIV co-infections, and we will revise our syllabus within our joint Diploma of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene teaching at Liverpool and London.

Arriving now in Manchester and taken as a whole, COUNTDOWN is well set to address these issues by fostering the scale-up of NTD control by focused implementation research tapping into newly formed research networks, which is something I am very privileged to lead and will promote this coming week in WHO-Geneva at a technical advisory group on diagnostics for schistosomiasis.

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