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[RIYADH] The Middle East will soon have a research centre dedicated to the monitoring and control of insect-borne infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue.

Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Health has allocated US$5.5 million as seed funding for a joint research centre to develop innovative ways to monitor, evaluate and control major diseases transmitted by vectors, with help from the UK-based Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the Innovative Vector Control Consortium.

"We are very excited about this new venture with two world-class leaders in research and development in infectious diseases," said Saudi health minister Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Rabeeah at the signing of the agreement this month (4 April).

The deputy health minister, Ziad Memish, told SciDev.Net that the centre, to be based south of Riyadh in Jazan, "is expected to open in early 2012, to act as a link between the research efforts related to infectious diseases of the three parties of the agreement".

He explained that it is part of a larger effort to build national and regional capacity in science and technology. It is envisaged as a regional centre of excellence that would help develop world-class scientists though PhD and Master's courses, as well as shorter training courses.

Staff recruitment and training will start immediately, and the first project will be to develop an Arabic version of the Malaria Decision Support System — a computer package that tracks the incidence of malaria and helps efforts to control the mosquito vectors.

"The centre will trace the infectious diseases in the [nearby] countries of the region, like Yemen, which is facing a rise in the number of patients with infectious diseases compared to other neighbouring countries," said Memish.

It could help to eliminate malaria in Saudi Arabia, he added, where just over half the population is at risk from the disease, according to the WHO. Saudi Arabia is "in the final stages" of eliminating malaria, Memish said, adding that the plan is to make the country malaria-free within four years.

Najia A. Al-Zanbagi, a professor of parasitology at King Abdulaziz University, said that the centre could help Saudi scientists do world-class research. It could help limit the spread of pathogens and "encourage attempts to provide new treatments for many tropical diseases", she said.

Nuha Zelai, a biology lecturer at the same university, told SciDev.Net the centre "is like a dream that came true just in time". She said that a well-equipped centre that specialises in disease research could make it easier and quicker to obtain biological materials for research from abroad and to carry out research projects.

The project's partners will try to raise an additional US$21.5 million, which is needed for infrastructure, education programmes and research activities.