National and Regional Media in Burkina Faso and Kenya Commit to Increase Coverage of Emerging Health Technologies in Africa
15 October 2021
Author: Mohammed Duba and Venancious Tuor
L - R: Dr. Rose Oronje (AFIDEP); Prof. Richard Mukabana (University of Nairobi); Prof. Charles Mbogo (Pan African Mosquito Control Association - PAMCA); and Ruth Nesoba (Council member, Kenya Editors Guild - KEG). Nairobi, Kenya.

Engaging media in Kenya and the African region

On 5 October 2021, the Platform for Dialogue and Action on Health Technologies in Africa (Health Tech Platform) partnered with the Kenya Editors’ Guild to host a breakfast meeting that discussed the role of the media in fostering public conversations on emerging health technologies and their potential in tackling health challenges in Africa. The purpose was to create awareness about emerging health technologies among editors in order to increase and sustain media coverage of ongoing efforts to develop, test, pilot or deploy emerging technologies in tackling persisting and emerging health issues in Africa.

The African Union, through its Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), has prioritised a range of emerging technologies with potential to change the health challenge on the continent including: “Omic” technologies (genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics); E-health solutions; Geospatial modelling; Artificial intelligence; Additive manufacturing; and Drones.

The meeting introduced the editors and journalists to emerging health technologies, noting that there are various research groups conducting research to either develop, test or pilot various emerging health technologies including genome editing, gene drives for Malaria elimination, synthetic biology, data science, artificial intelligence, monoclonal antibodies, among others.

Speaking at the meeting, Dr. Rose Oronje, AFIDEP  Director of Public Policy and Knowledge Translation, and Head of Kenya Office, noted that the potential of emerging health technologies will not be realised in Africa unless if they are successfully developed and tested on the continent. She noted, however, that successful development and testing is currently being hampered by four main factors including: limited involvement/participation of Africans in technology development; limited knowledge among key stakeholders and the public; opposition to the development of some of the technologies; and limited priority & investments in these technologies by African governments.

Zeroing-in on Malaria, which remains a major killer in Africa, the meeting noted that there are various tools being developed by research groups on the continent for the control and elimination of the disease.

Prof. Charles Mbogo from the Kenya Medical Research Centre (KEMRI) and the current President of the Pan African Mosquito Control Association (PAMCA) outlined the many reasons why Malaria remains a major killer on the continent despite current tools and efforts, including: drug and insecticide resistance, residual transmission, lack of technical and human resources, hard-to-reach populations, weak health systems, weak surveillance systems, and lack of domestic and sustained international financing.

According to Prof. Mbogo, some of the new tools being developed, tested or piloted for Malaria control and elimination on the continent include:

  • Attractive toxic sugar baits (being tested in Kenya, Mali and Zambia) – given mosquitoes’ drive to feed on sugar for energy, this is an adulticide method to kill mosquitoes
  • Malaria-carrying mosquitoes die after feeding on individuals who have ingested Ivermectin drug (being tested in the Gambia, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ivory Coast) – mass ivermectin drug treatment for humans and livestock.
  • Gene drive technology, i.e. genetic or biocontrol strategy for making vector populations unable to transmit disease, or substantially reduce the vector populations.

Prof. Mbogo emphasised that Malaria elimination will take a combination of tools and not one tool.

Prof. Wolfgang Richard Mukabana from the University of Nairobi elaborated on the ongoing research in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali and Uganda, to test the gene drives technology for Malaria control. He noted that in all four countries, the research was in initial stages, where the research teams are conducting various studies, mainly with wild mosquitoes, in efforts to prepare for the study with gene drive mosquitoes. He emphasized that while the plan was to study gene drive mosquitoes, research on gene drive mosquitoes had not yet started in any of the sites in the four countries. Talking about some of the challenges or concerns with the planned research on testing gene drive mosquitoes for Malaria elimination, Prof Mukabana said these include: low capacities on the continent in biosafety, and a range of concerns by stakeholders including concerns about the stability of the modified genes, potential spread to non-target species, ecosystem imbalance.

Part of the research planned to be conducted in Ghana will assess the effects of the eliminating Malaria-transmitting mosquitoes from the ecosystem. This will help address the ecosystem imbalance challenge.

Dr. Willy Tonui, the Chairman and Executive Director of the Environmental Health Safety, noted that gene drives research and deployment (if proven to work and safe) is guided globally by the Convention on biosafety (originated from the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety), and with country-level laws and policies. He noted that while many countries have biosafety laws, regulations, and policies, only Nigeria had amended its Act to include emerging issues in biotechnology (including gene drives, gene editing and synthetic biology).

Relating to governance issues on gene drives, Dr. Tonui noted that decisions on release of gene drive mosquitoes would be made on a case-by-case basis following a comprehensive environmental risk assessment, clear communication and public engagement, and consideration of the technology’s wider implications. He noted that multiple regulatory authorities would be involved in approval including the environmental regulator, health regulator, and the biocontrol regulator. He noted that the AUDA-NEPAD was providing Members States with the necessary support to ensure that research on and development of new genetically-based vector control tools are conducted in a responsible manner and in full compliance with safety requirements for human health and the environment for the benefit of African communities.

The editors and journalists decried the limited interaction with scientists, which contributed to their low knowledge and consequently low or no coverage of the ongoing research on health technologies in Africa. One of the editors said, “we have a lot of opportunities that are often wasted on music and politics. These are opportunities that could be used to educate the public about the work on emerging health technologies.” Some of the questions posed by the editors and journalists are presented in the textbox.

Speaking at the event, Ms. Ruth Nesoba, a Council Member of the Kenya Editors Guild and British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Regional Deployments Editor, East Africa,  appealed for training for journalists on emerging health technologies to increase their understanding of these technologies which is a pre-requisite for media coverage. She committed to exploring partnerships with the Health Tech Platform and other research stakeholders to sustain regular forums for discussing emerging health technologies.

Media houses represented at the meeting included Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Voice of America (VOA), Nation Media Group, K24 TV, TalkAfrica, Switch TV, The Star Newspaper, Royal Media Services, SciDevNet, and TV 47. Following the meeting, various media stories were published on emerging health technologies including:

Engaging Media in Burkina Faso and West Africa

In August 2021, the Health Tech Platform held discussions with science journalists and news editors of key media houses in Burkina Faso, one of the Platform’s focus countries. The meeting was an avenue to officially introduce the Platform, seek the buy-in of the media, and discuss the critical role the media in the activities of the Platform in Burkina Faso and in West Africa.

The meetings were a follow-up to earlier virtual engagements with the African Media Network of Journalists for the Promotion of Health and the Environment (REMAPSEN). The Network operates in Francophone and Lusophone Africa.

The journalists expressed excitement and readiness to partner with the Health Tech Platform to deliver its activities and results. Speaking during one of the meetings, Mrs. Brigitte Sawadogo, Burkina Faso Country Coordinator of REMAPSEN and a journalist with the National Television and Radio of Burkina Faso (RTB), said the Health Tech Platform could not have come at a better time, given the kind of attention malaria deserves.

“I must say we are excited to be part of this Platform… Malaria has been a big issue here in Burkina Faso and we are aware our government has made several interventions aimed at addressing the disease,” she said. “The work that has already gone on here in our country, with regard to health technologies, is commendable, but not much has been communicated on it. We therefore see this Platform as an avenue for the media to provide a space for the public to engage in discussions that will yield the needed results,” continued Mrs. Sawadogo.

As part of their commitment, the journalists published various stories following these meetings including:

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