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[LONDON] A group of European foundations have launched a new initiative to improve research into neglected tropical diseases in Africa.

The African Fellowship Programme on Neglected Tropical Diseases will fund projects for African scientists to carry out biomedical or public-health research into diseases such as schistosomiasis, the filariases, helminthes, Buruli ulcer, bacterial meningitis and viral diarrhoea.

"The idea is to build up a cadre of African researchers in the field and from there to try to build up research centres," says Sarah Lock, Commonwealth Programme Coordinator at the UK-based Nuffield Foundation, which has committed US$500,000 to the scheme so far.

The programme will award three-year fellowships of up to US$130,000 for the investigation of neglected diseases to African postdoctoral scientists and students completing their PhDs.

"As well as funding pure scientific research on how effective various drugs are, the idea is to see how best to get those drugs out to people — the delivery systems — why people are resistant to them, how you come to have a situation where drugs are free, or so cheap, but still not getting out to people — the public-health policy and social anthropology sides of things, as well as the pure science," Lock told SciDev.Net.

The organisers are hoping to appoint up to 20 fellows, who will receive training in key skills such as proposal writing and making presentations.

A mentorship programme will also provide fellows with up to US$15,000 to enable them to establish links with leading scientists, both African and non-African, in the field.

Lock says the researchers themselves and their departments will choose who is best to provide advice and guidance for their research. "The idea is that, as far as possible, this is African led."

Applications are open until 31 March. Shortlisted candidates will attend an international conference on neglected diseases, to be held in September in Bamako, Mali, where they will present their current work.

International experts will attend the event, and help judge the candidates. Fellowships will then be awarded between the end of 2008 and early 2009.

The scheme is the brainchild of the German-based Volkswagen Foundation and is based on consultations with African medical researchers. It is supported by the Nuffield Foundation, the Merieux Foundation of France and the Gulbenkian Foundation in Portugal.