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  • Kenya fills research gap on emerging diseases


[NAIROBI] A laboratory that will research and monitor emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) such as yellow fever and dengue has been set up in East Africa — in an attempt to tackle growing vector-borne health threats in the region.

The Martin Lüscher Laboratory for Emerging Infectious Diseases was launched with support from the German and Swiss governments at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Kenya, last month (16 September), and is expected to add capacity to respond to disease outbreaks.

"This laboratory will improve risk detection, response capacity and research capability for key arbovirus [transmitted by arthropods, such as insects] disease agents in Kenya and the region," said Rosemary Sang, a researcher at icipe. "It will also train MSc and PhD students under the centre's capacity building programmes."

She said that icipe has focused mainly on human parasitic diseases such as malaria, leishmaniasis and trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), which are all vector-borne, and is well placed to cover other diseases spread by insects such as mosquitoes and ticks.

"It is now apparent that EIDs transmitted by vectors have re-emerged with vigour in the region and icipe will help answer epidemiological questions on the disease drivers. We do not want to be left behind," said Sang.

She added that there is already a high burden in Africa of vector-transmitted EIDs such as yellow fever, dengue, Rift Valley fever (RVF), o'nyong-nyong virus, Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever and the chikungunya virus.

Sang said that, from 2006 to 2007, more than 300 people died from RVF in East Africa, and the chikungunya epidemics that swept through the region between 2004 and 2006 resulted in 500,000 human cases and 155 deaths. The new laboratory's first project is a US$5 million pilot study on RVF, funded by the philanthropic organisation,

Joyce Kerubo Onsongo, disease control and prevention officer at WHO country office in Kenya, said EIDs are a health priority in East Africa, as in other African regions, and laboratory capacity is important.

"The WHO regional office for Africa has identified priority diseases for epidemic potential under our integrated disease surveillance and response strategy. These include viral haemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola, Marburg, dengue, chikungunya and Lassa," she said.

"We cannot afford to ignore the threat of emerging infectious diseases, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where we have seen epidemics spread like bush fire," said John Vulule, head of the Centre for Global Health Research at the Kenya Medical Research Institute. "We have to establish the capacity to predict, detect and deal with them as soon they occur and the laboratory will go a long way towards filling this gap."

Africa, he added, has lagged behind in setting up such laboratories, owing to high costs and lack of research capacity.

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