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African Grants Program Builds Local Capacity to Eliminate Neglected Tropical Diseases

Africa accounts for 40 percent of the global burden of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Last year, The Task Force and its partners launched a USAID-funded grants program to support African scientists in conducting operational research studies on the control and elimination of these diseases.

The initiative was spearhead by John Amuasi, PhD, executive director of the African Research Network for NTDs (ARNTD). Here, he talks about the impetus behind the Small Grants Program that currently supports six researchers who are tackling barriers to the control and elimination of NTDs in their home countries of Cameroon, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Togo.

Given the success of the program’s inaugural year, The Task Force’s Coalition for Operational Research on NTDs (COR-NTD) now plans to expand it.

The Small Grants Program (SGP) is giving researchers in several countries the opportunity to expand their work with NTDs. How did this initiative come up?

The initiative stems from the belief that there is a lot of potential among researchers on the African continent but many of them just haven’t had the opportunity to put their skills to the test. This is because of the relatively limited opportunities for African scientists to lead some of the important research that informs policy and other decisions toward elimination and control of NTDs. So Pat Lammie and others bought in to this idea, and that kick-started the move towards the Small Grants Program.

Can you talk about the process of selecting the SGP awardees?

We tried to make this process as rigorous and transparent as possible, especially for us at ARNTD, because this is the first ever of its type. We appreciate the faith and the confidence that USAID and COR-NTD have in us to give us this opportunity so we wanted to make this as right as possible. We received nearly 100 applications and about 60 met all the eligibility criteria. The ARNTD management board, which also serves as a scientific review board, did the first round of applicant reviews. We had a scoring system so we developed review criteria and a guide to score all of these. All of those who met the minimum score were then forwarded for a second round of reviews at the USAID and COR-NTD level and that resulted in the choice of six individuals.

Tell us a little bit about the SGP recipients?

We’re very proud for many reasons – of all the researchers who work in Africa, and also for the distribution. We have three females and three males. For me I think that’s great. There wasn’t really any gender bias but it was based on the quality of the submissions. The other thing is the distribution from across the continent. We have folks from West Africa, Central Africa and East Africa. I think that’s a great representation.

Is the ultimate goal for anyone in the public health field to not only control and eliminate NTDs in Africa, but the entire world?

That is definitely one of the objectives; to make sure that these diseases no longer have the level of negative impact that they have had. It’s the poorest of the poor who on account of their social status are most vulnerable to these diseases. Eliminating that connection between poverty in these diseases is really at the heart of this fight.

ARNTD’s mission is “to support evidence-based control and elimination of NTDs from Africa by empowering current and future generations of African researchers.” How has your organization kept this undertaking going while hoping Africa one day will be NTD-free?

The program is essentially an opportunity for African researchers to do research that they themselves believe is important – an agenda which is set by them, pursued by them. The interesting thing about this is that it includes the junior researcher component which is really the future generation of African NTD researchers. So, we’re giving them the opportunity to experience what it means to write a competitive proposal, to get a grant, manage it and do the research and come up with the result and publish it, hopefully. So, I think the small grants program is clear evidence of us staying true to our mission. This is why I keep knocking on the doors of potential collaborators to join in this kind of effort. I think it’s noble in many ways, and it’s a win-win for all of us in this NTD fight.

Apparently, the small grants recipients don’t see this a small grant. That must be exciting from your perspective.

You’ve hit the nail on the head. The only thing that’s small in these grants is the money. But the visibility, opportunity, and the spring it gives us is not small. There’s nothing small about this except the money and even that is relative.

What have you been most proud in your time at ARNTD?

I think there have been many exciting moments, aside from the small grants program, which is a more continuous kind of exposure that I’m proud of. Maybe one other thing I’m proud of was when I was asked to represent ARNTD at the third Geneva International Forum in February 2017. At the forum, I was given the opportunity to address the German Chancellor on behalf of the world’s NTD community. I think that, for ARNTD and for me, was one of our proudest moments.

What are you hoping the SGP awardees get out of the COR-NTD meeting?

What really prodded me into going into public health was my exposure to the Global Forum for Health Research which doesn’t exist anymore. That exposure, hearing research from all over the world, hearing about disparities, hearing about research methodology and approaches to addressing issues related to poverty, and how that impacts public health outcomes changed my way of thinking. I do not downplay the opportunity to expose people. It’s exposure that generates thinking. In a disease, you get exposed to pathogens. You develop antibodies and the body responds in a certain way, good or bad. Exposure always elicits responses. This is a good exposure. It will elicit a response, which can be of immeasurable magnitude down the line.

In conclusion, any thoughts you’d like to share?

I do not take for granted at all the faith that COR-NTD and USAID have placed in us to make this work. Not every funder will be willing to take a perceived risk of this sort. We’re really eager to make this work and very cognizant of the effort that COR-NTD and USAID have put into this. They really didn’t have to. But I think it comes from a fundamental belief in the principle of giving African researchers the right opportunities to do what they want to do.

Editor’s Note: This interview took place at the annual COR-NTD meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, last November and was first published on the COR-NTD website as an audio and written piece. This is an abridged version of that interview. Listen to the full interview here.

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