Thursday, May 28, 2015

Africa's health centre at the frontline of HIV research

The Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies sits in the HIV capital of the world. The sleek modern building, rising out of an otherwise rustic setting near Mtubatuba in South Africa, attracts world-class researchers looking to wage war against the resilient virus.

“It’s the frontline,” says Deenan Pillay, the centre’s director, on secondment as professor of virology at University College London. “We’re in one of the highest-incidence HIV areas in the world and it is essential to understand how to reduce new cases. I’m very privileged to be working with this population and it’s a place where I think research can very clearly be seen to be making a difference.”

The centre opened in 1998 and receives £3.5m to £4m a year from the Wellcome Trust, along with more than double that amount from external funders including French and American health agencies, the EU, the South African Medical Research Council and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The list of papers published by the centre’s researchers in scientific journals numbers 99 last year alone.

Currently part-hidden by scaffolding as it undergoes renovations to expand its operations, the Africa Centre lies deep in rural KwaZulu-Natal province, close to a wildlife park where elephants and rhinos roam. Many local people are subsistence farmers living in traditional thatched-roof rondavels and keeping chickens and goats. Rates of tuberculosis among the local population are extraordinarily high.

Reducing HIV, TB and other associated diseases is at the heart of the Africa Centre’s work, according to Pillay, but the benefits go far beyond South Africa. “The research that we do there is highly relevant to other similar poor areas of the world in terms of how to counteract HIV.”

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