The health minister of Nigeria has said that capacity building in science and technology — and particularly in the health aspects of biotechnology — is essential if Africa is to meet development goals agreed by member states of the United Nations.
But he warned that, at present, sub-Saharan Africa was "off track" towards achieving almost all of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which governments have committed themselves to achieving by 2015.
Eyitayo Lambo pointed out that three of the eight MDGs, eight of 16 identified targets, and 18 of 48 individual indicators proposed as measures of success, related to health.
The difficulties in achieving these goals, he said, were exemplified by his own country. Its health system was weak, one result being that at present, both maternal and infant mortality were high, with one in ten infants dying at childbirth, and one in five children dying before the age of five years.
Referring to issues ranging from misconceptions about oral polio vaccines to the lack of vaccines against diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, Lambo said it was important to address the links between the problems on the ground, and what science and technology could to do to alleviate them.
"One of the rays [of] hope is [health] biotechnology," he said. A report from the World Health Organisation, for example, had highlighted the relevance of genomics to the improvement of health in developing countries.
One area in which science could contribute directly to the achievement of the health MDGs was the development of accurate, rapid and affordable diagnostic devices, said Lambo. "If we look at the case of Nigeria, one of the constraints [to an effective health system] relates to the lack of diagnostic tools. This is an area in which science and technology is already offering important breakthroughs".
Another area was the development of effective vaccines and improved systems for drug delivery. There was also a need for better devices such as microbicides to allow women to manage their sexual health, as well as the provision of new and more affordable drugs.
Lambo said a recent survey showing a significant level of health biotechnology activities being carried out in developing countries, proved that "we are not only talking theoretically".
"This survey has put hope into countries like ours that we can find our own way into the promised land."
The survey had also revealed that an increasing number of South-South collaborations were complementing the more traditional North-South cooperation. "If we can increase the tempo of some of these interventions, that will enable us to increase the speed with which we achieve the MDGs," the minister said.
But that could only happen if steps were taken to ensure that African governments gave prominence to science, that science and technology policies were developed, and that science and technology were made political priorities.
"We also need to ensure that we are tapping effectively into all the resources we have in Africa, and linking these effectively together," he said. And it was important that money on research projects designed to address Africa’s needs "really goes to Africa, and that the research itself is done in Africa".
Click here to see the presentation that accompanied Minister Eyitayo Lambo's speech
Click here to see the results of a study of biotechnology in developing countries
Click here for SciDev.Net's coverage of the 31 January - 2 February meeting 'Building Science & Technology Capacity with African partners'.