SA centre will focus on Aids epidemic

May 31, 2002

A British-funded, university-backed epidemiological research project has been launched in rural South Africa, on the doorstep of the area known as the "Aids capital of the world".

The Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies, one of the world's biggest epidemiological research projects, opened this month near Mtubatuba on South Africa's east coast.

US scientist Michael Bennish, director of the centre, said: "Our mission is to conduct research on pertinent health and population problems, with an emphasis on HIV-Aids. When the centre was established, we took a conscious decision to locate our headquarters in the area where we conduct our research."

An initial Wellcome Trust grant of R80 million (£5.5 million) enabled the Africa Centre to be established in 1998 by a consortium including the University of Natal and its Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, the University of Durban-Westville and the Medical Research Council.

The British charity has committed more than R300 million to the research programme, which in the years since its creation has, among other things, set up Africa's biggest and most sophisticated demographic surveillance system.

The system is monitoring a population of 85,000 in the rural area of Hlabisa, which has an HIV prevalence of 41.6 per cent, to provide policy-makers with information on fertility trends, births and deaths, household dynamics and changes in the pattern of the HIV epidemic.

There are also several related research projects, including studies on HIV transmission and the nutritional status of HIV positive mothers, as well as a major programme being run with the local health services delivering the anti-HIV drug nevirapine to pregnant HIV positive women.

The study will gather data on the effectiveness of nevirapine in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and to solve a key question for women in the poor world - whether to breast feed their babies and risk transmitting HIV, or formula-feed in conditions of poverty (such as dirty water), which makes babies vulnerable to equally deadly diseases.

Built on a 13-hectare plot donated by local Inkosi chief M. Mkhwanazi, the R10 million building was funded by the Wellcome Trust and its opening was attended by Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini, government officials and representatives from Britain and the US.

Home to some two dozen leading local and foreign scientists and 250 field workers, the Africa Centre used local labour and materials to create what it calls a "post-industrial working space" that can be used both by community members and researchers.

Dr Bennish said the building reflected the centre's philosophy of community involvement.

"This is a major investment in a resource-poor community and shows our commitment to the development of rural communities," he said.

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