South Africa has announced plans for what will be the continent’s largest study. The government wants to track the health, income, and educational attainment of around 1% of South Africa’s population.
Long-term demographic studies have proven pivotal to our understanding of diseases – and figuring out how we can counter them. Basically, by studying disease patterns for a long time, we can see what lifestyle choices affect what diseases and how effective interventions are.
In Africa, this is perhaps more important than anywhere in the world. Problems such as HIV and tuberculosis are ravaging some parts of the continent, and funding is still scarce to study and treat them. But if we don’t study these disease in depth and at a social level, we will always be a step behind, always reacting to the disease instead of trying to prevent it.
“You never get your head above water to plan for the future,” says Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council.
It’s not the first such program in South Africa. The country already has had three demographic surveillance projects running since the mid-to-late 1990s, tracking changes in life expectancy as the country rolled out an aggressive antiretroviral drug program to fight the HIV epidemic. However, all these programs were focused on rural areas, ignoring large swaths of the country and providing only a partial view of the situation.
“The rural sites have been critical for understanding things like how antiretroviral rollout plays out in districts,” she says, but many disease patterns are tightly connected with the busting city life.
Previous programs were also on a much smaller scale than this one. The sheer magnitude of the study is expected to spark even more research. Linda Fried, an epidemiologist who is dean of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, believes that this survey will not only allow South Africa to develop its science base and increase medical efficiency, but also attract external, international investments in science.
External funding will be crucial because so far there is only funding for three years of the project. Naledi Pandor, the South African science minister, while expressed his full support for the study, failed to provide full funding for it.
“We build big scientific infrastructure to attract international researchers to our country,” Pandor said.
This study can be a big deal for the country and the continent if enough funding can be secured.