Continuing to strengthen science capacity in Africa: Opinion by Dr Roger Glass

September / October 2016 | Volume 15, Number 5

There was a sense of excitement in the air at the recent Medical Education Partnership Initiative (MEPI) meeting in Nairobi, where plans to continue the program were announced. With support from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), efforts to strengthen capacity building in sub-Saharan Africa would continue and solidify progress made in the first five years. Attendees, which included representatives of the sister program devoted to nursing (NEPI), were energized by the news.

It was an extraordinary gathering of 234 academics, government officials, scientists and others from some 20 countries, who have come together around the common goal of increasing the quantity and quality of health care professionals in sub-Saharan Africa. During the proceedings, attendees officially established a new organization, called the African Forum for Research and Education in Health (AFREhealth), to build on the existing MEPI Principal Investigators Council and provide leadership in addressing Africa’s health challenges.

I have been delighted with the creativity, leadership and good stewardship of the MEPI awards over the past five years. These dozen grants - made directly to African organizations with high-income country partners in the subordinate role - have accomplished much more than we ever imagined.

Networking within countries and among the MEPI grantees has been central to the program’s success. In Uganda, a consortium of medical schools was formed, enabling collaboration to address national education and health system challenges, such as the delivery of HIV care and prevention services. Zambian participants used some of their funding to strengthen infrastructure including skills labs, computers and IT equipment, and Wi-Fi and internet bandwidth. Botswana developed and reinforced geographically distributed teaching sites, producing its first-ever locally trained doctors, who may remain in rural areas where most of the population lives. Meanwhile, Ghana established its first emergency medicine curriculum, graduating and retaining in-country more than 80 health professionals. These are just a few of the many success stories detailed in MEPI’s five-year report, which I encourage you to read.

Woman in medical uniform braces neck of man with neck brace lying on table, another man stands close and instructs, 3 observe
Photo courtesy of Peter Donkor

The Medical Education Partnership Initiative (MEPI)
helped to train doctors across Africa, such as the
students in Ghana pictured above.

During the meeting, participants discussed plans for the next five years and considered a number of issues. First, by encouraging more interaction between MEPI and NEPI, we are acknowledging the important role of nursing and the great potential for working and educating together as one unit.

We also explored the wonderful development of strong south-south partnerships that have formed among members of the network and discussed ways to encourage new ones. Collaborations with industry are another area that holds promise and may be expanded. Finally, since Fogarty is now assuming a formal role in the NIH’s Human Health and Heredity in Africa (H3Africa) program, it will facilitate increased collaboration on genomics in the region, particularly in regard to training efforts.

The concepts detailing our plans for the next round of funding to support the MEPI network have been posted on Fogarty’s website. The first would provide support for a leadership body and the second would fund programmatic activities to strengthen the quality of medical and nursing education, retain health professionals and enhance research capacity.

Perhaps our most important goal is to ensure the sustainability of the program, preserving the substantial gains that have been made and the vibrant network that has been created. We have made headway in many countries, securing financial and other support from national governments, but more must be done to increase their investment and to attract funding from other public and private funders.

MEPI has proven to be one of the truly game-changing programs in support of advancing education in medicine and the health sciences in Africa, and could have a rich legacy for many years to come.

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