Conducting Medical Research in Africa: Opportunities and Misconceptions

Ranjit Warrier in 2016 in Zambia with his permission

Medical research conducted in Africa is often undercovered and ignored by the media, but it is a thriving field that highlights the continent's most pressing needs.

The reason why there is demand for locally conducted medical research is two-fold: Firstly, global health currently does not have the range of medicines and vaccines required to tackle the health issues specific to the African continent. Diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria have a greater detrimental impact on the poorest countries of Africa and a lack of investment in products targeting these diseases by pharmaceutical companies is a major problem.

Secondly, research conducted by African scientists will serve to develop research capacities in Africa and an increased role for science and technology can only be beneficial to the continent's economic development.

Dr. Ranjit Warrier is the director of the Central Laboratory at Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ). He grew up in Lusaka, Zambia in the 1990's just as the AIDS epidemic began to take a major toll on the national health. He left Zambia to pursue higher education in the United States in Louisiana, then Indiana. He conducted his own research on the HIV virus as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania before deciding to go back home in order to make an impact on Zambian healthcare.

Global Voices discussed both the future of medical research in Zambia and the things that the media gets wrong about such research in Africa with Dr. Warrier. (Disclaimer: Dr. Warrier is speaking in a personal capacity):

Global Voices (GV): What is your research topic?

Ranjit Warrier RW: I'm doing a lot of implementation work currently, supporting the Zambian national ART programme with Laboratory testing. I am just starting a research programme in Molecular Diagnostics development for HIV, TB, and other pathogens of interest.

GV: What do you see/think are the trending and hot topics in science in your country and Africa in general? How is it different from that in Western countries?

RW: There is no basic R&D. It's all implementation of solutions developed elsewhere. This has to change, otherwise we will always be receivers rather than makers. The received solutions are not usually ideal for our environment and making them work here correctly is sometimes impossible.

GV: Where does the funding and support come from? Is it sufficient? How easy/difficult is it to recruit suitable scientists?

RW: US and Europe. Different projects have different levels of funding. It is difficult to recruit people to come back or to move here, as funding and growth opportunities are better in other countries .

GV: How are the research infrastructures? What are the obstacles in your routine research activity that you didn’t encounter before?

RW: Basic infrastructure is not up to developed country standards and it costs a lot to get uninterrupted power, water, and Internet. Supplies are expensive and take months to be imported from other countries.

GV: What are the public’s opinions towards science and scientists in Africa?

RW: There is interest, but an extremely limited understanding of the scientific method. I would suggest critical thinking and the scientific method be taught in school to improve the situation.

GV: In your opinion, what is the potential in scientific research in Africa, where it should focus on and how we can help its development?

There is amazing potential. I have seen incredible students of all ages. There is need for dedicated science education starting at all ages. Social sciences, computer sciences, big data, outer space exploration, healthcare (non-communicable and Infectious diseases), and traditional medicine efficacy will pay off big.

GV: Could you describe the pros and cons of the life as a scientist in Africa vs Western countries based on your experience?

RW: Mainly it is the speed of doing things and the access to expertise that are big challenges here. The system that journals have to put articles behind paywalls is also limiting the amount of information and the speed with which research can be done.

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