Inter Press Service » Changing Lives: Making Research Real News and Views from the Global South Sun, 23 Apr 2017 06:41:53 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Ugandan App for Pain-Free Malaria Test Tue, 13 Aug 2013 09:08:42 +0000 Amy Fallon (l – r) Josiah Kavuma, Simon Lubambo, Joshua Businge and Brian Gitta, otherwise known as team Code 8, have developed a mobile phone app to diagnose malaria. Courtesy: Microsoft.

(l – r) Josiah Kavuma, Simon Lubambo, Joshua Businge and Brian Gitta, otherwise known as team Code 8, have developed a mobile phone app to diagnose malaria. Courtesy: Microsoft.

By Amy Fallon
, Aug 13 2013 (IPS)

In his 21 years Brian Gitta has had malaria too many times to count. And over the years, because of the numerous times he has had to have his blood drawn to test for the disease, he has developed a fear of needles. It is little wonder then that he and three of his fellow computer science students worked hard to develop a mobile phone app that detects malaria – without the use of needles.

“I was two or three years old when I first contracted it,” says Gitta, who is studying computer science at Makerere University in Kampala.

“It’s very unusual to meet people in Uganda who haven’t had malaria. If you go to a clinic, you might find that 90 percent of patients have it.”

Annually an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 Ugandans die from the tropical disease, which is transmitted to humans by mosquitos carrying the malaria parasite. That makes it the country’s biggest killer, according to the NGO Malaria Consortium Uganda. Experts say nearly half (about 42 percent) of Uganda’s 34.5 million people are host to the malaria parasite, although they do not display any signs of being ill.“With this test people may be able to avoid a doctor’s consultation and treat malaria in its early stages before it causes anaemia and brain damage. Once this app comes out, the impact’s going to be great.” -- Moses Kizito, director of SAS Clinic

Gitta’s most recent bout of malaria, just before Christmas in 2012, was severe. He contracted brucellosis, an infectious disease contracted by the consumption of unsterilised milk or meat, and typhoid at the same time and had to be hospitalised for a month.

“I had to undergo lots of blood tests. I was in lots of pain and the doctor’s queue was long,” he says.

Gitta was bedridden during his convalescence, and during that time he had a light bulb moment. He imagined a “mobile medical centre” that offered a quicker and pain-free diagnosis without needles and pricks. Gitta envisaged using a small device for this – but it was a big vision.

But as soon as he recovered he set to work on realising it.

And this July in St Petersburg, Russia, Gitta, Joshua Businge, Simon Lubambo and Josiah Kavuma, known as team Code 8, were announced the winners of the inaugural Women’s Empowerment Award at Microsoft’s global student software competition, Imagine Cup. The all-male group was recognised for their development of an application that they call Matibabu, Swahili for medical centre.

In Uganda, malaria is diagnosed via either the microscopic examination of blood films or a rapid diagnostic test.

The microscopic diagnosis usually takes about 30 minutes or longer and requires a lab technologist. It is considered the “gold standard” of testing, as it is the most reliable method. It reveals the presence or absence of the parasite in the blood, the parasite species and the extent to which they have multiplied in the body.

However, a rapid diagnostic test can be done anywhere and without a qualified microscopist. It usually takes about 15 minutes to get the results, though it cannot show the number of parasites as a microscopic diagnosis does.

Matibabu uses a custom-made portable device called a matiscope, which is connected to a smartphone, to do a rapid diagnostic test. The user’s finger is inserted into the matiscope, and the application uses a red light to penetrate the skin and detect the red blood cells.

“It’s been shown that infected red blood cells have a different physical, chemical and biomedical structure from a normal red blood cell, hence [we] used light-scattering technology to determine the scatter patterns of both normal and infected cells,” Kavuma tells IPS.

“Through the difference in the patterns, the app is able to diagnose for malaria without a blood sample.”

The hardware has a light-emitting diode and a light sensor, and it transmits the test results to the user’s phone for processing.

Matibabu then sends the results to the Microsoft file hosting service, Skydrive, and these can be shared with the patient’s doctor almost immediately, preventing the long delay in getting results.

Code 8 says that Matibabu, which can currently only be used with the Windows phone operating system, will help pregnant women in particular. According to the World Health Organisation, half the world’s population is susceptible to malaria. Pregnant women, young children and people living with HIV/AIDS are especially vulnerable.

“When a pregnant woman gets malaria it affects the baby,” Lubambo tells IPS. “But if it’s able to be detected very early it could reduce miscarriages.”

However, the team hopes to have Android and other OS versions by mid-2014. They say when they begin introducing other versions for different platforms, they may start using file hosting services, like Dropbox, to store the results.

The students hope their device will be on the market within two years and say the application will be free to download. The hardware may cost between 20 and 35 dollars. The young developers concede that this is a lot of money for many Ugandans.

Currently, in Uganda’s private health sector both the microscopic diagnosis and the rapid diagnostic test cost under five dollars, Dr Jane Achan, professor at the department of paediatrics and child health at the Makerere University College of Health Sciences tells IPS.

Malaria affects mostly rural dwellers, she says, adding that in Apach district, northern Uganda, a patient receives over 1,500 infected mosquito bites a year. These people may not have access to smartphones.

“The urban settings are already a little more advantaged in that their health facilities are more accessible, they have more doctors and they have more accessible diagnostic facilities,” Achan explains. “At the end of the day this app has to be compared with what is existing and available.”

Moses Kizito is the director of private SAS Clinic in Kampala, where they test no less than 50 patients a day for malaria and receive eight to 10 positive results.

He says at the moment Matibabu seemed “quite expensive” but in the long run it may prove economical.

“Once people are forced to go to the clinic [with malaria] it’s expensive to manage the disease,” Kizito tells IPS.

“With this test people may be able to avoid a doctor’s consultation and treat malaria in its early stages before it causes anaemia and brain damage. Once this app comes out, the impact’s going to be great.”

Kavuma says that Microsoft has offered the group mentoring and business training, but they are considering other options to market and manufacture the product.

“We are planning on contacting Chinese companies for this,” he says.

Gitta hopes other diseases can be diagnosed in a similar way. “The future is bright and anything can happen…,” he says. “Let’s watch out for the next great thing.”


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India Goes Bananas Over GM Crops Fri, 14 Jun 2013 00:06:07 +0000 Ranjit Devraj Banana vendors in Chennai, South India. Credit: McKay Savage/CC-BY-2.0

Banana vendors in Chennai, South India. Credit: McKay Savage/CC-BY-2.0

By Ranjit Devraj
NEW DELHI, Jun 14 2013 (IPS)

India’s environmental and food security activists who have so far succeeded in stalling attempts to introduce genetically modified (GM) food crops into this largely farming country now find themselves up against a bill in parliament that could criminalise such opposition.

"If the new bill is will only be a matter of time before India becomes a GM banana republic." -- Devinder Sharma
The Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) bill, introduced into parliament in April, provides for ‘single window clearance’ for projects by  biotechnology and agribusiness companies including those to bring GM food crops into this country, 70 percent of whose 1.1 billion people are involved in agricultural activities.

“Popular opposition to the introduction of GM crops is the result of a campaign launched by civil society groups to create awareness among consumers,” said Devinder Sharma, food security expert and leader of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security. “Right now we are opposing a plan to introduce GM bananas from Australia.”

Sharma told IPS that if the BRAI bill becomes law such awareness campaigns will attract stiff penalties. The bill provides for jail terms and fines for “whoever, without any evidence or scientific record misleads the public about the safety of organisms and products…”

Suman Sahai, who leads ‘Gene Campaign’, an organisation dedicated to the conservation of genetic resources and indigenous knowledge, told IPS that “this draconian bill has been introduced in parliament without taking into account evidence constantly streaming in from around the world about the safety risks posed by GM food crops.”

She said that Indian activists are now studying a new report published in the peer-reviewed Organic Systems Journal by Judy Carmen at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, showing evidence that pigs fed on GM corn and soy are likely to develop severe stomach inflammation.

“The new bill is not about regulation, but the promotion of the interests of food giants trying to introduce risky technologies into India, ignoring the rights of farmers and consumers,” Sahai said. “It is alarming because it gives administrators the power to quell opposition to GM technology and criminalise those who speak up against it.”

The past month has seen stiff opposition to plans to introduce GM bananas into India by a group of leading NGOs that includes the Initiative for Health & Equity in Society, Guild of Services, Azadi Bachao Andolan, Save Honey Bees Campaign, Navdanya and Gene Ethics in Australia.

These groups are seeking cancellation of a deal between the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and India’s biotechnology department to grow GM bananas here.

Vandana Shiva, who leads the biodiversity conservation organisation Navdanya, and is among India’s top campaigners against GM crops, told IPS that such food crop experiments pose a “direct threat to India’s biodiversity, seed sovereignty, indigenous knowledge and public health by gradually replacing diverse crop varieties with a few patented monocultures.”

She fears that an attempt is being made to control the cultivation of bananas in India through patents by “powerful men in distant places, who are totally ignorant of the biodiversity in our fields.”

India produces and consumes 30 million tonnes of bananas annually, followed by Uganda which produces 12 million tonnes and consumes the fruit as a staple.

India’s National Research Centre for Banana (NRCB), which has preserved more than 200 varieties of the fruit, is a partner in the GM banana project. Others include the Indian Institute of Horticulture Research, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.

With so much official involvement there are fears that GM bananas may eventually find their way into nutrition programmes run by the government. “There is a danger that GM bananas will be introduced into such programmes as the integrated child development scheme and the midday meals for children,” Shiva said.

India’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), the world’s largest integrated early childhood programme, began in 1975 and now covers 4.8 million expectant and nursing mothers and over 23 million children under the age of six. Bananas are included as part of the meals served in many of the 40,000 feeding centres.

QUT’s Prof. James Dale, who leads the project, has, in interviews given to Australian media, justified the GM experiment by saying that it will “save Indian women from childbirth death due to iron deficiency.”

According to studies conducted by the International Institute for Population Sciences in Mumbai, more than 50 percent of Indian women and more than 55 percent of  pregnant women in India are anaemic. It is estimated that 25 percent of maternal deaths are due to complications arising out of anemia.

In a Mar. 9, 2012 interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dale said, “One of the major reasons around iron is that a large proportion of the Indian population are vegetarians and it’s very difficult in a vegetarian diet to have intake of sufficient iron, particularly for subsistence farming populations.

“India is the largest producer of bananas in the world but they don’t export any; all of them are consumed locally. So it’s a very good target to be able to increase the amount of iron in bananas that can then be distributed to…the poor and subsistence farmers.”

Dale denied in the interview that there were risks to existing Indian banana strains and said because bananas were sterile there is no danger that the genes being introduced will enter and destroy other varieties.

But experts like Shiva have challenged Dale’s claim. She said Australian scientists are using a virus that infects the banana as a promoter and that this could spread through horizontal gene transfer.

“All genetic modification uses genes from bacteria and viruses and various studies have shown that there are serious health risks associated with GM foods,” she stressed, adding that there are safer, cheaper and more natural ways to add iron to diets.

India is the world’s biggest grower of fruits and vegetables with many varieties naturally rich in iron. “Good sources of dietary iron in India included turmeric, lotus stem, coconut, mango (and) amaranth…there is no need to genetically modify banana, a sacred plant in India,” she said.

Attempts by IPS to contact Dale directly and separately through QUT’s press relations department on the risks from horizontal gene transfer and the possible danger to public health failed to elicit any response.

According to Shiva there is a concerted move by food corporations to control important food crops and staples in their centres of origin. “We have seen GM corn introduced into Mexico and there was a determined attempt to introduce GM brinjal in India.”

In February 2010, the then minister for environment, Jairam Ramesh, ordered a moratorium on the brinjal project and his action was seen as a major blow to the introduction of GM food crops in India.

“If the new bill is passed, we could have a reversed situation and projects like GM bananas will be quickly cleared with the backing of the government – and it will only be a matter of time before India becomes a GM banana republic,” Sharma said.

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Genes Cannot Be Patented, U.S. Supreme Court Rules Thu, 13 Jun 2013 21:29:42 +0000 Carey L. Biron The Supreme Court found naturally occurring segments of DNA "not patent eligible" on Thursday. Credit: Phil Roeder/CC by 2.0

The Supreme Court found naturally occurring segments of DNA "not patent eligible" on Thursday. Credit: Phil Roeder/CC by 2.0

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Jun 13 2013 (IPS)

The nine judges of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that naturally occurring DNA, including component parts of that genetic material, cannot be patented.

The decision overturns three decades of practise to the contrary by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Health and civil liberties groups are celebrating the unusual unanimous ruling, as are consumer protection advocates.

Although the case dealt specifically with questions regarding the “isolating” of genes within the human genome, the judges did not limit their decision to human genetics, meaning the case will have an effect throughout the biotechnology industry.

“A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the court’s final opinion.

He noted that U.S. patent legislation “permits patents to be issued to ‘[w]hoever invents or discovers any new and useful…composition of matter,’ but ‘laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas’ ‘are basic tools of scientific and technological work’ that lie beyond the domain of patent protection”.

The court did, however, leave open the possibility of patenting synthetic or “complementary” DNA, artificial copies of DNA that are either separated or constructed in a lab and allowed to evolve on their own.

The biotech industry has long argued that stringent patent protection is needed for companies to feel comfortable spending the significant capital required to fund related research and development.

Others have suggested that allowing such patenting actually quashes innovation by limiting competition, while also pointing to the significant federal money that is often available for such research."A product of nature cannot be patented."
-- Sandra Park

Still, the ruling will likely affect and potentially void thousands of patents on “isolated” genetic material taken out over the past decade or more, though experts say the legal process will now be required to move through each patent on a case-by-case basis. Isolated DNA is genetic material excised from chromosomes but not otherwise altered.

According to current estimates, about 40 percent of the human genome is currently covered in some way by patents.

Product of nature

“The court’s decision today represents a straightforward application of the ‘product of nature’ doctrine, which holds that a product of nature cannot be patented,” Sandra Park, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a watchdog group, told reporters after the ruling.

“Maybe a product required great ingenuity to discover, but a product of nature needs to remain as part of the storehouse of knowledge.…This is a simple question but with profound consequences, and from our perspective this ruling is a victory.”

The ACLU has been involved in this case since 2009, when it helped bring a lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs suffering from breast cancer who found themselves at the mercy of a U.S. company that had patented two genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer. Researchers working for that company, Myriad Genetics, isolated those genes and then developed tests for mutations based on the research.

“These patents here tied up all uses of those particular genes, so if you found a better way to do this testing, you couldn’t do it,” Jaydee Hanson, a policy analyst at the Centre for Food Safety, a Washington advocacy group, told IPS.

“In that way, this is a revolutionary change, and makes clear that the U.S. Patent Office has not understood what the Constitution says as relating to the patenting of naturally occurring things. This is very important, and we will be working hard to disallow Congress from trying to pass any new law suggesting that you can indeed patent DNA.”

In the initial lawsuits, plaintiffs argued that Myriad was able to charge exorbitant prices for the tests and that its patents disallowed competing labs from working with those genes in any way.

“Genes are not being held hostage by private corporations any longer,” Lisbeth Ceriani, a breast cancer survivor and original plaintiff in the case, told reporters Thursday.

“If you’ve been adopted or don’t know your medical history – say, if your parents are from other countries – up until today Myriad had been able to design the criteria for who should take their test, as opposed to doctor or patients. So I’m incredibly relieved, as something that’s been going wrong for more than a decade has finally been corrected.”

Moral obviousness

Medical experts are suggesting that the court’s decision will now have an immediate impact on public health, given that Myriad’s methods – and similar research based on isolated DNA – will be able to be put into broad clinical practice and subjected to further study.

Yet the implications of the ruling will almost certainly be felt beyond the confines of human health.

“Part of the significance of this ruling is that the judges did not specify that the decision applies only to human DNA, so this will now cover the whole range of DNA,” the Centre for Food Safety’s Hanson says.

“Many of the patents out there today are of other mammals, animals, plants and microorganisms. In fact, we’ve recently seen some decline in the number of human patents being issued, but large numbers of other patents are still being issued.”

He also notes that the decision has brought the United States somewhat more in line with legal precedent on this issue elsewhere, particularly in Europe.

“European patent law has set morality as a standard, so some countries have made restrictions on what is patentable gene sequence because it might be immoral to exclude people from being able to engage in certain testing or research,” he says. “In effect, the court has come down on the side of both the U.S. Constitution and moral obviousness.”

Still, those on the losing side of Thursday’s decision are suggesting that they are relieved the ruling did not go farther.

“I’m not fully happy with opinion, but it could have been much worse,” Greg Dolin, a co-director at the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Medicine and Law who formally supported Myriad Genetics in the case, said in a press conference hosted by the Federalist Society, an association of right-wing attorneys.

“Luckily, the court did not undercut the biotechnology industry,” Dolin said. “It took a cautious step, but ultimately didn’t do too much damage – though that remains to be seen, in how the decision is applied to future cases.”

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Mexicans Develop Drones for Peace Thu, 11 Apr 2013 14:27:42 +0000 Emilio Godoy Jordi Muñoz began building drones as a hobby in 2007 and is now a founding partner of a fast-growing company in the field. Credit: Courtesy of Jordi Muñoz

Jordi Muñoz began building drones as a hobby in 2007 and is now a founding partner of a fast-growing company in the field. Credit: Courtesy of Jordi Muñoz

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Apr 11 2013 (IPS)

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, have earned a bad reputation due to their controversial use by the United States in its “war on terrorism”, yet they have almost unlimited potential as tools for scientific research.

The word “drone” is most commonly associated with the remotely piloted and heavily armed aircraft that are used by the United States to strike down suspected terrorists, but have also caused a great many civilian deaths in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

However, more than 40 countries around the world either deploy or manufacture drones, according to reports consulted for an article published by IPS.

These unmanned airplanes and helicopters are used for such diverse purposes as drawing maps, exploring the ocean floor, measuring temperature or pollution levels, monitoring weather phenomena, and the surveillance of high-risk areas or archaeological sites.

Last month, the U.S. space agency NASA sent drones into the plume of the Turrialba volcano in Costa Rica to study its chemical composition.

“The technology is emerging, the first applications have just barely begun. Society itself has learned to accept drones beyond their military uses, because they have seen the different ways they can be used. It’s just a matter of time” until they become more widely developed and used, said young Mexican entrepreneur Jordi Muñoz, co-founder of 3D Robotics, a pioneer in the manufacture of drones in Mexico.

His story mirrors the evolution of drones, which he began to build in 2007 with the help of 500 dollars provided by U.S. physicist Chris Anderson.

“He gave me the money purely on trust. It was the best 500 dollars I ever invested. I decided to build a drone. I was developing the automatic pilot and I went on Google to look for information when I came across a forum. I went in, registered, and saw that they were posting things about homemade drones,” recalled Muñoz, who is currently finishing a degree in computer engineering at the University of California, Berkeley in the United States.

The forum was DIY (“Do It Yourself”) Drones, an online community created by Anderson in 2007 as a space for hobbyists who build their own UAVs to share experiences, electronic codes and component maps.

“I started to post videos, write code, and document and publish what I was doing,” Muñoz told Tierramérica*. His work caught the attention of Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine until this past January and now the young Mexican’s partner in 3D Robotics.

The company does not sell UAVs for military use. The vehicles are designed in the southwest U.S. city of San Diego and assembled across the border in Tijuana, Mexico. They receive between 100 and 150 orders daily from clients in the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Israel and Japan.

3D Robotics currently employs 60 people and hopes to expand its staff to 100 by the end of the year. Since its founding in 2009, the company has earned around 10 million dollars through sales and received another five million from three U.S. funds that provide financing for tech firms.

“In 2013 we want to professionalise all of our products. There have been huge advances, everything has now been greatly simplified, and we want to make drones easy to use. But we need engineers to write code, for manufacturing,” said Muñoz.

Working on the basis of open licensing, a network of engineers around the world work together to improve codes and develop more advanced products.

In 2012, Muñoz was chosen as one of the top ten innovators under 35 in Mexico by Technology Review, which is published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A drone is equipped with a high-speed processor, battery, GPS receiver, compass and sensors like an accelerometer and gyroscope. Unmanned planes can fly for up to three hours, and helicopters for half an hour. Connected to a modem, they can transmit real-time data in a range of up to 60 kilometres.

In Mexico there are no regulations on the use of drones, although the government uses them to fight drug trafficking, some companies use them to supervise construction, and universities use them for scientific research.

At the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (CINVESTAV), three researchers are building prototypes for surveillance and security, with an eye towards commercial production.

“We lost a bit of time. If we had done it five years ago, we would be on a par with other countries. It wasn’t given much importance, so there was no research. We have a great deal of potential, above all because the students we are training start out with a more advanced awareness,” Hugo Rodríguez, a mechatronics researcher at CINVESTAV, told Tierramérica.

“The models will continue to improve, and we will gain experience by solving new problems. We could have a marketable prototype within a short time, with trained human resources,” said Rodríguez, who has a doctorate in automation and signal treatment from the University of Paris XI.

Since 2007, the centre’s specialists have designed a four-engine plane, two fixed-wing aircraft and two helicopters, and have experimented with their automatic controls.

“As this work continues to develop, a marketable technological application could emerge. We’ve been approached by companies, but we didn’t have a prototype ready yet,” said Rodríguez.

Seven students have graduated with Master’s degrees in mechatronics since 2007, and two Master’s degree candidates and two doctoral candidates are now working on this initiative.

Although the commercial use of drones is currently prohibited in the United States – they are only permitted for scientific or recreational uses – the government is preparing to integrate them into the national airspace in 2015. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that as many as 30,000 non-military UAVs will be in the sky by the end of the decade, for a range of different purposes.

A recent study, “The Economic Impact of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration in the United States”, predicts that in the first three years of integration, more than 70,000 jobs will be created.

The study, published in March by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an industry group, estimates that between 2015 and 2017, the economic impact of drone integration will be greater than 13 billion dollars and could reach 82 billion by 2025, in terms of revenues earned by manufacturers and suppliers from the sale of new products as well as “the taxes and monies that flow into communities and support the local businesses.”

* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network.

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Universities “Not Living up to Missions” on Global Health Research Thu, 04 Apr 2013 21:14:24 +0000 Carey L. Biron HIV-positive children in Muhanga, a village in Rwanda. Credit: Aimable Twahirwa/IPS

HIV-positive children in Muhanga, a village in Rwanda. Credit: Aimable Twahirwa/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Apr 4 2013 (IPS)

A first-time ranking of 54 top research universities in the United States and Canada has found that a miniscule percentage of funding goes to neglected diseases, despite the outsized influence that public universities play in developing medicines for illnesses often ignored by the private sector.

According to the University Global Health Impact Report Card, released Thursday, less than three percent of research funding at these 54 universities went to neglected diseases in 2010. This includes not only the tropical illnesses, such as Chagas disease and sleeping sickness, but also paediatric HIV/AIDS, malaria and multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.Universities have a big role in making sure their research is translated into affordable medications for people in developing countries.

Altogether, more than a billion people globally suffer from these diseases, primarily in poor communities, according to data provided by the Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), an international student coalition that carried out the research for the report card. Further, around 10 million people a year are said to die because they are unable to access required medicines, many of which are simply too expensive for them to purchase.

“We often hear from students in university labs who really want to focus on these issues but find that the same resources aren’t available to them as in more traditional areas of study,” Bryan Collinsworth, UAEM executive director, told IPS.

“This is not just about bringing in more grant funding – though that’s huge – but also about universities taking more concrete steps to say they’ll support this area of focus. For instance, hiring more faculty in these areas, making sure students have more fellowships in both the field and lab on these issues, and perhaps officially establishing a centre to ensure a specific focus.”

Indeed, 15 of the universities studied had created such a centre, and 10 of those succeeded in offering higher funding for neglected diseases, Alex Lankowski, a BostonUniversity student that participated in the UAEM research, told IPS.

Over the past three decades, some 1,556 new drugs were created, UAEM reports, but only 21 – less than two percent – were for neglected diseases.

“Universities are non-profit institutions operating in the public interest, heavily funded by government grants – meaning taxpayer-funded sources – so students know this means they have a special responsibility to serve the public good,” Rachel Kiddell-Monroe, president of the UAEM board, said Thursday at the report card’s unveiling.

“Universities regularly position themselves as places of learning, operating for the good of the world. Unfortunately, leading research institutions are not living up to their missions … So, students are demanding that these schools start taking concrete steps.”

The UAEM ranking does not focus solely on neglected diseases. Rather, it uses some 14 metrics to look more broadly at whether academic institutions are investing in research that addresses the health of poor communities worldwide.

This includes how those schools are licensing any research discoveries for commercial development, particularly whether they are doing so in socially responsible ways that ensure that related products will be affordable in developing countries. It also includes looking at university programming aimed at creating a subsequent generation of global health practitioners, as well as analysing the extent to which those attempts include a focus on low-income countries and quality of health worldwide.

Under these parametres – the data for which comes only from self-reported, publicly available sources – some of the world’s highest-profile universities fare poorly. Out of 54 schools listed, for instance, 15 are given “D” ratings, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (at 39th), New YorkUniversity (40) and ColumbiaUniversity (45).

By deadline, none of these schools had responded to request for comment for this story.

Clear challenge

Kiddell-Monroe notes that global health is no longer the sole prerogative of the United Nations or private foundations. Rather, universities are “increasingly a site of key research and development in medicine – a role that is only set to increase,” she says. “For this reason, we need to examine the impact they’re having and hold them to account.”

Researchers have estimated that up to a third of new medicines are developed within the university system, including at least a quarter of current HIV/AIDS treatments.

“Universities play a huge role, yet we really need to consider this role a bit more carefully,” Dr. Unni Karunakara, international president of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), a humanitarian group, told reporters Thursday.

“It is a problem not only when universities are failing to conduct research on diseases that afflict the developing world. But further, when a university discovers a lifesaving new medicine and licenses it to a drug company in such a way that developing world patients can’t afford – that impedes global health.”

Karunakara notes that Glivec, the anti-cancer drug whose renewed patent was recently denied by the Supreme Court of India, was developed largely through research done in universities. It was subsequently priced out of the market in developing countries, however, when the drug was licensed to the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis.

“If universities make commitments to prioritise low-income communities, we can go a long way towards improving global public health,” Karunakara says. “Universities have a big role in making sure their research is translated into affordable medications for people in developing countries.”

The study does turn up some mixed data in this regard. For instance, 21 of the universities reported having come up with standards for socially responsible licensing, while more than half of research licenses are “non-exclusive” – though that figure drops to around a third for medical technologies.

Further, “Self-reporting universities rarely seek to patent their technologies in developing countries, at least within the first year of disclosure, meaning that generic drug manufacturers could develop affordable developing-world medical products from these discoveries without fear of patent restrictions,” a report accompanying the report card states.

“Even in the emerging BRICS economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), universities sought patents on new technologies less than 9% of the time, and less than 2% for all other low- and middle-income countries.”

Still, “provisions to promote global affordability in exclusive licenses” were found to be “exceedingly rare”, being included less than 11 percent of the time.

Together, these statistics present a “clear challenge” to universities, MSF’s Karunakara says: “As institutions dedicated to the public good, now is the time for them to step up and play a major role in improving health worldwide.”

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Chile in the Vanguard of Monitoring AIDS Therapy Thu, 22 Nov 2012 20:44:50 +0000 Marianela Jarroud By Marianela Jarroud
SANTIAGO, Nov 22 2012 (IPS)

In Chile, not only do all people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS receive treatment, but the country also has advanced mechanisms for monitoring outcomes of the antiretroviral therapy.

“Treatment is available in many other parts of the world, but no one knows whether or not it is working,” Marcelo Wolff, an infectologist who studies HIV/AIDS at the University of Chile, told IPS.

In this South American country, “coverage extends to nearly everyone living with HIV,” added Wolff, who won a Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award this year, which recognises innovative research that has made a notable contribution to improved clinical care in the field of internal medicine.

A red ribbon, the global symbol of the fight against AIDS. Credit: Gary van der Merwe CC BY-SA 3.0

Officially, some 22,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS in Chile, although the real number could be between 40,000 and 70,000, Wolff said.

“It is estimated that there are two to three undiagnosed people for every diagnosed person,” he said, “which means the total would be between 0.3 and 0.4 percent of the population over the age of 15” in this country of 16.5 million people.

The approach involves a monitoring system in 32 public healthcare centres around the country, which makes it possible to take timely measures addressing the specific needs of each case.

The monitoring is carried out by the Chilean AIDS Cohort (ChiAC), established by a team of professionals like Wolff, who joined a multidisciplinary and non-governmental network, SIDA Chile (AIDS Chile), founded in 2003.

“Knowing about what is happening to the people being treated is the main novelty,” Wolff said. “And the Chilean AIDS Cohort has been able to study that: the survival, morbidity and hospitalisation rates, and labour and social reinsertion.”

The same monitoring system is used for all patients taking the life-extending antiretroviral drugs, to evaluate the results of the therapy.

The data generated is used to inform policy-making. And specific measures can be taken to adapt the therapy to local conditions, based on the results. The information gathered also contributes to global assessments of the spread of HIV/AIDS.

“Results from developed countries and poor nations have traditionally been published, but there were few evaluations from the large group of middle-income nations, and the Chilean AIDS Cohort has provided that,” Wolff said.

Law 19,779, approved in December 2001, guarantees the rights of all Chileans to prevention, diagnosis, control and treatment, and safeguards the free and equal exercise of other rights and freedoms of those living with HIV/AIDS, expressly prohibiting discrimination in access to education, work and healthcare.

In addition, the “universal access of explicit guarantees plan”, which guarantees the right to treatment, with specific guidelines, was expanded to those living with HIV/AIDS.

And the “national programme of expanded access to antretroviral therapy”, in effect since 2001, ensures access to the latest treatment options for all patients.

As a result of the alliance between the government’s national programme and the Chilean AIDS Cohort, “mortality has been reduced by more than 80 percent, and the rate of hospitalisation has gone down, which has made it possible for people to take up their day-to-day lives again.

“Among our patients, we have achieved results comparable to those of developed countries,” he said.

Based on this joint effort, the social and economic conditions of those living with HIV/AIDS have improved, said Manuel Jorquera, the coordinator of the AIDS advocacy group Vivo Positivo. “There is more timely treatment, and it is guaranteed, along with the free monitoring,” he told IPS.

These benefits are tangible for Martín (not his real name), a 36-year-old journalist who was diagnosed with HIV four years ago.

“It was difficult to digest at first, but I had the support of several of my friends who are also living with HIV and who have managed to deal with the disease really well,” he told IPS.

Although HIV/AIDS remains underreported, a higher proportion of cases are now documented. Since the first cases were detected in this country in 1984, the highest AIDS (six out of 100,000 people) and HIV (9.6 out of 100,000) notification rates were recorded in 2011, according to the Health Ministry’s Epidemiology Department.

The evolution of HIV/AIDS in Chile is in line with global trends that reflect a 20 percent reduction in the number of new infections worldwide and a 17 percent increase in the number of people living with HIV in 2011, compared to 2001, when the AIDS epidemic was at its height.

There are 34 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, according to the latest global report, published by UNAIDS Tuesday Nov. 22.

But not every aspect involving HIV/AIDS has been solved in Chile.

Martín said that in his company people do not “officially” know he is gay, although “many suspect it.” What they definitely do not know, he said, is that he is HIV-positive and receives antiretroviral treatment at a public hospital.

“I have a totally normal lifestyle,” he said. “I go to work, I go out with my friends. But not even my mother knows I am infected. It would just destroy her.”

His fears are not unfounded. Despite the advances made at the level of public policies in Chile, deep-rooted discrimination persists, which exacerbates the fear of having an AIDS test.

“People feel the real fear of suffering from discrimination once it is known that they are infected,” Wolff said.

In his view, the most important challenge “is to keep people from being infected,” and to do that, “prevention campaigns must be much more direct than they have been.”

In addition, he said, “we have to try and diagnose everyone who is living with HIV/AIDS, and extend treatment to them.”

But to do that, the stigma surrounding the disease must be fought, he added.

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‘Cambodia Can’t Afford New Dengue Vaccine’ Thu, 13 Sep 2012 07:10:39 +0000 Vincent MacIsaac Dengue patients at Cambodia's National Paediatric hospital. Credit: Erika Pineros/IPS

Dengue patients at Cambodia's National Paediatric hospital. Credit: Erika Pineros/IPS

By Vincent MacIsaac
PHNOM PENH, Sep 13 2012 (IPS)

Public health experts in Cambodia are unenthused by reports of trials for a dengue vaccine conducted in neighbouring Thailand, saying it will be too costly for those who need it most – children in the least developed and developing countries.

“Of course, they cannot come out with a vaccine that costs 20 cents,” Dr. Philip Buchy, head of the virology unit at the Pasteur Institute of Cambodia, told IPS.

Buchy was referring to the Paris-based pharmaceutical company Sanofi SA’s dengue vaccine efficacy trials, the results of which were published in the British medical journal Lancet, this month.

Dr. Stephen Bjorges, leader of the vector-borne disease team at the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Cambodia, agrees. Even if Sanofi succeeds “funds would need to be mobilised” to cover the cost of inoculating children in Cambodia, he said.

A dengue epidemic that raged through Cambodia during the first eight months of the year landed more than 30,000 people in hospital, the majority of them children.

According to the Lancet report, Sanofi’s vaccine offers some protection against three of the four serotypes of the dengue virus – about 30 percent against serotype one and from 80 to 90 percent against serotypes three and four.

However, Sanofi’s vaccine does not protect against serotype two, which was circulating in the study area during the trial, giving the vaccine an overall efficacy rate of 30.2 percent, the report said.

Large-scale phase-3 trials are underway on 31,000 children and adolescents in Latin America and Southeast Asia, Sanofi said in a press statement timed with the release of the Lancet report.

According to the Reuters news agency, the company has already invested more than 430 million dollars in a new factory in France to produce the vaccine.

WHO’s Bjorges said that if the phase 3 trials proved the vaccine was effective, its initial market likley would be tourists from wealthy nations and the military, a view Buchy agrees with.

Buchy doubted, however, that an effective vaccine was around the corner. “The vaccine is not for tomorrow,” he said. “Dengue epidemics still have good days ahead of them.”

Still, both doctors expect increasing investment in vaccines and vaccine-related research as global warming expands the range of the mosquito that transmits dengue into southern Europe and the United States.

Developed countries are beginning to factor the costs of dengue treatment into their long-range healthcare budgets, while pharmaceutical companies have identified a potentially lucrative, emerging market, Buchy said. “Global warming is providing a shortcut for vaccine research.”

“Interest in vaccines is going to grow exponentially now that there is some success with a vaccine,” Bjorges said.

The European Union provided more than 10 million dollars for three dengue-related research projects in Southeast Asia earlier this year, including one in Cambodia to investigate the role that asymptomatic carriers play in transmission, Buchy said.

“If we can identify a gene that is protective this may allow us to develop drugs for treatment and vaccination,” he added.

Funding for prevention and control of epidemics in poor countries remains scant, however. The budget for Cambodia’s national dengue control programme is about 500,000 dollars, most of it provided by the Asian Development Bank.

Bjorges says one reason for the lack of funding for prevention and control is that it has shown little success. “Dengue control is 50 years old and everything that has been thought of has been tried.”

Breeding sites have to be eradicated weekly in order to prevent the mosquito that transmits the virus from emerging from its larvae, and this requires changes in human behaviour that have proven difficult to sustain on a weekly basis, Bjorges explained.

Another problem may be that those who allocate global health funds rely on short-term cost-benefit models, Bjorges said. They are under pressure to produce quick, quantifiable results for the funds they allocate, and dengue prevention and control projects do not fit these models, he explained.

Buchy was less pessimistic about the possibility of changing human behaviour. “Behaviour change is possible, but it requires more investment in education.”

Buchy’s view is echoed by Prof. Duch Moniboth of Cambodia’s National Pediatric Hospital that treated 1,673 children for dengue in the first seven months of this year. “There is not enough education about dengue – how to prevent infection and how to eradicate breeding sites.”

New research, however, suggests that dengue is far more prevalent in Cambodia than previously calculated, underscoring the need for increased investment in prevention.

The disease is underreported partly because Cambodia’s dengue surveillance system relies on data from state-run hospitals and charitable children’s hospitals. Cases treated at private hospitals and clinics are not reported to the health ministry.

Charitable hospitals treating dengue patients in Cambodia have been pleading for donations after being inundated with patients in May. The National Paediatric Hospital has been relying on nursing students to treat children who spill into the hallways and the foyer around the main stairwell.

The hospital receives a mere 20 dollars per patient, regardless of how long the child stays, Moniboth said. On average, doctors receive monthly salaries of about 125 dollars, while nurses are paid about 75 dollars, he said.

With such meager funding for healthcare what is needed is a cheap vaccine, Moniboth said.

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‘Misoprostol – Must for Reducing Maternal Mortality’ Wed, 12 Sep 2012 05:28:47 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim Pakistan needs affordable solutions to reducing maternal deaths. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

Pakistan needs affordable solutions to reducing maternal deaths. Credit: Zofeen Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Sep 12 2012 (IPS)

“I can’t imagine life without misoprostol,” says Dr. Azra Ahsan, a gynaecologist and obstetrician who has, for more than a decade, been using the controversial drug to stop women from bleeding to death after delivery.

Originally intended for treating gastric ulcers misoprostol has since 2000 been gaining in popularity for its ability to induce labour and stop post partum haemorrhage (PPH).

“I knew that it can save women from dying long before 2009 when it was registered for use in Pakistan,” said Ahsan, a member of the government’s National Commission on Maternal and Neonatal Health.

WHO guidelines advocate the use of misoprostol against PPH, while the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) suggests using the drug in situations where regular ‘uterotonic’ drugs like oxytocin and ergometrine are not available.

Doctors like Ahsan are dismayed at moves to get WHO to reverse its listing in April 2011 of misoprostol among essential medicines that “satisfy the healthcare needs of the majority of the population” and are  “available at all times in adequate amounts and in appropriate dosage forms, at a price the community can afford.”

Findings of scientific studies published in the August issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are being cited in suggesting that WHO should “rethink its recent decision to include misoprostol on the essential medicines list.”

Allyson Pollock, who led the study, stated that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that misoprostol works in preventing PPH. Instead, she urges poor countries to improve primary care and prevent anaemia to lower the risk of haemorrhage following delivery.

Ahsan, however, says that in Pakistan some 80 percent of pregnancy cases end up with the mother’s uterus failing to contract naturally after delivery, calling for the use of uterotonic medicines to reduce bleeding.

“Nearly 27 percent of maternal deaths in Pakistan are caused by excessive blood loss after childbirth,” Ahsan explained to IPS.

According to the latest Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (2006), Pakistan’s maternal mortality ratio stands at 276 for every 100,000 live births, and is among the highest in South Asia.

Bleeding, the leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide, is defined by the WHO as blood loss greater than 500 ml following a delivery.

The fact that misoprostol is also misused in Pakistan – and other developing countries like Brazil – to induce abortion cheaply, has added to controversies over the drug.

“I don’t care if people think it is used, misused or even abused…I know it saves mothers from dying,” says Ahsan.

Unlike other uterotonics, misoprostol has the advantage that it does not need refrigeration for storage and can be easily administered orally by trained birth attendants, Ahsan said.

A joint statement by FIGO and the International Confederation of Midwives states: “… in home births without a skilled attendant, misoprostol may be the only technology available to control PPH.”

Zulfiqar Bhutta, head of women and child health at the Aga Khan University, Karachi, and member of the independent expert review group for maternal and child health to the United Nations secretary-general, agrees with Pollock that misoprostol needs to be evaluated more robustly.

“But I wouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water yet,” Bhutta told IPS. “There is a need to increase its use in the right circumstances and also carefully monitor misuse. It is no magic bullet and should not lead to complacency in provision of essential maternal services,” he said.

“I think the point of the paper published recently is to try and separate  science from messianic zeal,” says Bhutta who is also co-chair of ‘Countdown to 2015’, a global scientific and advocacy group tracking progress towards the U.N. Millennium Development Goal Five pertaining to maternal health.

“Misoprostol is promising and we should do our best to evaluate its safe use,” said Bhutta. “But, there are people in Pakistan who are recommending large scale distribution to families for use in all births. Will this be cost-effective or indeed safe?”

Pollock’s study has stirred international concern. International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Upeka de Silva told IPS in an e-mail that if WHO withdraws misoprostol, it would mean “countless women will be denied life-saving care and forced to suffer pregnancy-related complications which are entirely preventable.”

“We are fully aware that all studies have limitations and that continued research on best practices for maternal care is needed,” de Silva said.

“However, for the purposes of meeting the urgent needs of women, particularly in rural, underserved communities, we are confident about being guided by the abundant literature and expert evidence supporting the safety and effectiveness of misoprostol for multiple reproductive health indications,” de Silva said.

Further, she said: “The increasing number of clients provided with safe abortion services, treatment for incomplete abortion and PPH through clinics run by our member associations is further evidence that misoprostol should remain available and accessible.”

“It’s alright to stir confusion sitting in cushy offices, but the ground reality in Pakistan is quite different,” said Ahsan. “The conditions we work under are very, very constrained…let’s not forget the hot temperatures and long power outages (causing refrigeration failure).”

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Philippines Floods Prompt Climate Action Mon, 27 Aug 2012 06:14:21 +0000 Kara Santos Filipino farmers are taking to climate-smart agriculture. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

By Kara Santos
MANILA, Aug 27 2012 (IPS)

This year’s floods, one of the worst in Philippine history, destroyed a staggering 57 million dollars worth of crops, pushing  this climate vulnerable country to implement disaster risk reduction measures.

“We used to schedule our harvest season around the wet and dry months. But now you can never tell,” says Teresita Duque, a rice farmer in the Nueva Ecija province of the Central Luzon region, the ‘rice granary’ of the Philippines.

“The sky suddenly darkens, and the rains just fall,” Duque, who uses native rice varieties and eco-fertiliser on her farm, told IPS in an interview in Manila.

Monsoon rains enhanced by Typhoon Haikui near China had already been drenching Luzon, the Philippines’ main island, for several days when, from Aug. 6-7, nearly two months worth of rain fell on Metro Manila and several provinces in Luzon.

At least 95 people perished in the ensuing floods and landslides, with nearly a million others forced to evacuate their homes.

As the Philippines tries to emerge from years of agricultural backwardness and attain food self-sufficiency, farmers, non-government organisations (NGOs) and government agencies are trying to map out strategies that can mitigate the effects of weather patterns gone wild.

Scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a non-profit agricultural research centre based in Los Banos, Laguna, believe that a flood resistant variety of rice, dubbed ‘submarino’ for its ability to withstand two weeks of submergence, could be one answer.

Last year, when typhoons Nessat and Nalgae devastated Central Luzon, farmers who had planted ‘submarino’ were able to harvest their crops even after their paddies had been submerged for nearly a week.

Glenn Gregorio, senior scientist and plant breeder at IRRI, told IPS that several ‘climate-change ready’ rice varieties, including drought-resistant varieties, are being developed at the institute.

“When you talk about floods in the country, you often see images of urban areas with cars floating and people stranded on their rooftops, but the farmers are really the worst affected,” Gregorio told IPS in a telephone interview.

The farmers’ group ‘Sarilaya’ agrees that while agriculture in the Philippines needs to adapt to climate change, it is best to stick to naturally resilient native varieties rather than go in for hybrids developed in laboratories.

Sarilaya workers say that hybrid varieties are dependent on expensive chemical-based fertilisers which, in the long run, ruin the soil and harm the health of farmers and communities.

“Extreme weather patterns are making the agricultural sector more vulnerable than ever before,” said Pangging Santos, advocacy officer at Sarilaya that works to empower farmers like Duque. “What used to be considered normal is no longer normal.”

“There are many different native varieties that still need to be tested, but the experience of our farmers shows that native varieties are more sustainable than hybrid varieties in the long run,” Santos told IPS.

Sarilaya runs a farming school and model eco-farms in Northern Luzon where farmers learn how to make their own organic fertiliser. Farmers are taught to make pesticides from locally available ingredients instead of buying costly chemical-based insecticides and sprays.

Duque said where she used to spend at least 223 dollars on farm inputs for one cropping, she now spends less than 16 dollars, mostly on organic fertiliser and pesticides.

“We need to change our mindsets about climate change strategies and look at long-term sustainability,” said Santos.

Sarilaya’s strategy of promoting organic farming is in line with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s vision of ‘climate-smart agriculture’.

Hideki Kanamaru of the Climate, Energy and Tenure Division of the FAO says climate-smart agriculture is about sustainably increasing productivity. It is also about adaptation and mitigation by reducing greenhouse gases from agricultural production without compromising on food security.

Kanamaru introduced FAO’s vision during a symposium held in February by the Philippines department of agriculture, which was attended by policy makers, scientists and practitioners from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation nations and select organisations.

The essence of FAO’s climate-smart farming is careful use of natural resources such as land, water, soil and genetic material as well as good practices that include conservation agriculture, integrated pest management, agro-forestry and sustainable diets.

While the government is providing free rice seeds and crop insurance to farmers in Luzon – where crops have been severely damaged by floodwaters and heavy rains – the country’s climate change commission admits that it may be too late to meet this year’s rice harvest targets.

In 2010, the Philippines topped the list of rice importers when it bought up 2.5 million tonnes of rice. While determined efforts towards self-sufficiency have brought the figure down to 860,000 tonness in 2011, plans to drop imports further have gone awry.

The national climate change action plan says that sensitivity to weather fluctuations “will greatly affect the country’s production and have a domino effect on our target of self-sufficiency by 2013.”

The plan notes: “The Philippines, being archipelagic and because of its location, is one of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change…ranking highest in the world in terms of vulnerability to tropical cyclone occurrence.”

When President Benigno S. Aquino III signed into law the People’s Survival Fund (PSF), on Aug. 17, by amending the Climate Change Act of 2009, it was not a moment too soon.

“As we have seen clearly over the past few weeks, there is a pressing need to financially support disaster prevention efforts of local government units,” said Senator Loren Legarda, the driving force behind the 2009 law, at the launch of the PSF.

Worth 23 million dollars annually, the PSF will finance adaptation programmes and projects based on the National Strategic Framework on Climate Change. The fund may be augmented by donations, endowments, grants and contributions.

“The signing of the law signifies the president’s commitment to better prepare the country for erratic weather patterns and climate change,” said Elpidio Peria, convenor of Aksyon Klima, a coalition of 40 civil society organisations working on climate change.

Aksyon Klima released this month an e-toolkit ( for mainstreaming disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation and helping local governments plan for extreme weather.

*With Art Fuentes

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Malnutrition Implicated in Child Killer Epidemic Thu, 19 Jul 2012 13:51:54 +0000 Vincent MacIsaac 0 Waste Not, Want Not – Providing for South Africa’s Food Security Wed, 04 Jul 2012 13:52:05 +0000 Yuven Gounden Researcher David Still has found a way to contain the pathogens in human waste in order to use it as a fertiliser. Credit: Yuven Gounden/IPS

Researcher David Still has found a way to contain the pathogens in human waste in order to use it as a fertiliser. Credit: Yuven Gounden/IPS

By Yuven Gounden
PRETORIA, South Africa, Jul 4 2012 (IPS)

As South Africa grapples with reducing its sanitation backlog, scientists seem to have found a way to reduce the build up while simultaneously combatting the country’s food insecurity. The solution? Safely using human waste as fertiliser.

Although almost 11 million South Africans have been served with basic sanitation since 1994, more than 13.3 million people had not yet accessed basic sanitation services by 2008, according to the country’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

But in addition to this, South Africa’s pit latrines are filling up faster than their expected design life, according to the Water Research Commission (WRC).

“Only one third of municipalities have a budget to maintain on-site sanitation. If pits fill up, all the hard work that was done to address the sanitation backlog will be wasted. Why not use faecal sludge (FS) to address the growing problem of food insecurity by planting fruit trees? Or use the sludge to cultivate trees for fuel or paper production?” asked WRC researcher David Still. The result was the formation of the project titled “What happens when pit latrines get full.”

“It is clear that in our country the use of vacuum tankers is not always a solution because of access problems, and also because of the foreign objects found in pit latrines,” he said.

Human excreta or FS have valuable nutrients such as Nitrogen, Phosphates and Potassium and the average person excretes enough of this per year to sufficiently fertilise 300 to 400 square metres of crops.

However, using FS as a fertiliser can be hazardous because of the pathogens it contains, especially if it is used for surface spreading and where edible crops are cultivated. There is also a risk that the FS could contaminate groundwater.

“We looked at the possibility of harnessing the nutrient value of the sludge whilst containing the hazard posed by the pathogens until they died off,” said Still.

In order to find a way to contain the pathogens in the FS, research was conducted on two pilot sites, one in Umlazi and the other in Karkloof, in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The local municipality and the South African Paper and Pulp Industry (SAPPI) respectively own the sites used.

Still and his team discovered that by burying the FS in pits and planting on top of it, pathogens were contained and eventually died off.

Trenches of about 0.75 metres in depth were dug and partly filled with FS of varying volumes. Two control sites where no FS was added were also monitored. The trees in the area were monitored for growth and volume those planted above the FS showed significant growth and volume, “as much as 80 percent”.

In order to test for the presence of FS pathogens, the researchers searched for the eggs of the large roundworm, a hardy parasite. If the eggs were found, it meant that the FS still contained pathogens and was harmful.

“Analysis of sludge extracted at periodic intervals indicated that no roundworms could be found after a period of 30 months after burial in the ground,” Still said.

Sfundo Nkomo, an engineer with Partners in Development, tested for microbes at the Umlazi site.

“One has to monitor the situation because of the risks involved. It is clear that the technology works and that the plants have nice dark green leaves. Of the nine rows of planted trees, those with the sludge treatment were bigger and better developed.”

Groundwater near the entrenchment sites was also monitored to determine whether the sludge affected water quality. At the Umlazi site, which is flat and sandy with deep soils, no impact was observed. However, at the site near Karkloof, which is sloping with shallow soils, a small increase in nitrate concentrations in the groundwater immediately after rainfall was observed.

It showed researchers that sites selected for deep row entrenchment should ideally be flattish and have deep soils.

Lindiwe Khoza’s house in Umlazi was selected as a test site. The sludge was buried in the ground here and citrus and peach trees were planted on top.

“The fruit grows much faster and it seems to be tastier and juicier than fruit bought at supermarkets. We now enjoy fruit from our own garden,” a delighted Khoza told IPS through a translator.

The land management programme leader at Sappi Forests, Giovanni Sale, said that they had also seen a marked increase in tree growth in the areas where deep row entrenchment was used.

“This improvement in tree growth, however, unfortunately does not make up for the very high site preparation. Land preparation costs were in the region of thirty times more than conventional forestry practice. Therefore, the economics alone do not make this a viable commercial practice at present,” Sale said.

He added that if the local municipality were to start a deep row entrenchment project on their own land, and crop it with plantation trees, Sappi would assist.

“Sappi would be in a position to offer superior planting stock, technical assistance and a market for this timber. If the municipality were to adopt this practice and if smaller volumes of sludge are buried at regular intervals using labour, a small work force could be kept busy,” he said.
He did add that it was “a once-off experiment.”

Jay Bhagwan, the director of Water Use and Waste Management at the WRC, said that deep row trenching could provide both food and fuel security for communities.

“Communities can grow fuel wood trees or fruit trees according to their requirements. Plant growth and fruit development are greatly improved with the application of the sludges. The technology has enormous potential. Making sanitation work also raises such exciting possibilities for smart management of our resources,” Bhagwan said.

According to Still, providing sanitation is not about building more toilets. “It is about managing sanitation smartly.”


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Can Europe Derail the Shale Gas Express? Mon, 13 Feb 2012 11:09:00 +0000 Julio Godoy By Julio Godoy
MARSEILLE, Feb 13 2012 (IPS)

Following numerous warnings issued by geologists, health scientists and environmental experts throughout the United States, Europe is now well aware of the high ecological and health risks associated with the exploitation of shale gas fields.

Shale gas extraction releases high amounts of methane, which contributes significantly to global warming. Credit:  ProgressOhio/CC-BY-2.0

Shale gas extraction releases high amounts of methane, which contributes significantly to global warming. Credit: ProgressOhio/CC-BY-2.0

Yet, despite ample knowledge and strong public opposition from various local communities, the recently discovered shale gas deposits across Europe – in particular in France, Germany, and Poland – are highly coveted and will likely soon be exploited by the traditional oil, gas and mineral multinationals.

This year, test drillings are expected to begin in more than 150 locations in Poland, which allegedly contains the richest shale gas fields in Europe. In Germany, local electricity providers have obtained rights to drill in numerous localities in the Northern federal state of Lower Saxony. The French government, meanwhile, has chosen more than 70 sites for drilling, mostly along the Mediterranean coast, around the southern city of Marseille.

Similar projects are under way in Switzerland, Britain, Sweden, and other European countries.

Local communities and environmental groups opposed to the projects argue that the geochemical procedures necessary to liquefy shale gas pose such grave threats to human health and surrounding ecologies that governments should prohibit them.

The recent Oscar-nominated documentary film Gasland by U.S. journalist Josh Fox has fuelled opposition against this burning issue by laying bare the health and environmental risks associated with the oil extraction process.

A week ago, the film was screened in the picturesque Provencal village of Moissac Bellevue, some 650 kilometres south of Paris and just north of Marseille, for an audience of several hundred people. Among the viewers were mayors of numerous neighbouring villages, mobilised by the growing concern within their own constituencies.

“Exploitation of shale gas fields in the region constitutes an enormous risk of ground water contamination due to the massive use of chemicals in the process,” Pierre Jugy, mayor of Tourtour, another Provencal village near Marseille, which will eventually be affected by the drillings, told IPS.

“Given the ambiguity of national legislation on the matter, and the health risks for our citizens, I ask all mayors in the region to prohibit the drillings within their jurisdictions,” he added. “It is our responsibility as elected representatives of our region to guarantee that such risks do not (become a reality).”

The ‘ambiguity’ Jugy was referring to arose from a government decision to suspend its own drilling permits, and commission yet another study on the health and environmental impacts of shale gas exploitation.

Similar studies are under way in Britain, Germany, and other European countries.

No more ‘fracking’

The most controversial procedure associated with shale gas is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In order to liquefy the gas, wells are dug and then injected with millions of litres of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure, in an attempt to ‘fracture’ the geological masses containing the shale gas.

Benzene is one of the many highly dangerous chemicals used in the process, while similar chemical compounds mix with, and finally contaminate, underground water supplies.

The health and environmental claims against fracking and similar procedures are well founded: In a recent case study, benzene was found in ground water in the north German region of Allerdorf, in Lower Saxony, near a drilling station.

“Last December, we took water samples at a location just above the pipelines of the drilling,” Heinrich Cluever, a local farmer, told IPS. “We found benzene in a concentration of 4,000 microgrammes per litre of water.”

A benzene concentration of as few as five microgrammes per litre is considered carcinogenic, according to Hermann Kruse, professor of chemistry and toxicology at the university of Kiel, located some 300 kilometres west of Berlin.

“Benzene is one of the most dangerous chemical materials we know,” Kruse told IPS. “It is one of the very few chemicals we definitively know causes cancer.”

Benzene has also been found in other regions in Lower Saxony, where local populations have been experiencing extremely high rates of cancer. In Allerdorf alone – a village of less than 30 households – dozens of cases of cancer have been detected.

These ominous signs are widespread and have led to calls for a complete ban on fracking in Germany. So far, however, the government has only pledged to establish strict rules for the projects but stopped short of imposing a ban.

Apart from localised health risks to communities living in the surrounding area, shale gas extraction is also hazardous to the planet as a whole, since fracking releases high amounts of methane, which contribute significantly to global warming. In general, fracking is believed to produce a highly negative greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions balance.

Environmental activists believe that, if the European Union is serious about reducing the region’s contribution to climate change, it will stop drilling altogether.

Experts also predict that the shale gas projects will fail in Europe for a host of other reasons.

“On the one (hand), the geology is extremely complicated,” Ingo Kapp, researcher at the German Geological Centre in Potsdam, near Berlin, told IPS. “On the other side, Europe’s high population density makes the drillings much more difficult. Finally, the environmental rules are stricter (here) than in the U.S.”

Kapp added that the European geological structures containing gas lay much deeper than in the U.S.

“They are also smaller, and of a different geological nature, which makes drilling much more expensive,” Kapp told IPS.

Such data is corroborated by GASH, a joint venture funded by leading energy multinationals for coordinating corporate research on shale gas in Europe.

“Western Europe is a region that has been said to have only minor shale gas resources,” GASH said in a communiqué. “One reason for this is Europe’s strong compartmentalisation of the geological setting compared to the large sedimentary basins in the U.S.”

For such reasons, Kapp predicted, “A gas revolution (similar to the one) in the U.S. won’t happen here.”

However, some troubling cases should serve as a reminder to the European activist community that they still face a long battle against multinationals and governments with vested interests in extraction projects.

For example, in Poland, where well over a hundred drilling projects are slated to commence in 2012, environmental activists’ efforts to discuss the risks with local populations have been hindered by the fact that government officials have branded their public education campaigns “national treason”.

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Sorghum Proving Popular with Kenyan Farmers Sun, 22 May 2011 21:25:00 +0000 Isaiah Esipisu

Isaiah Esipisu

By Isaiah Esipisu
MAKUENI DISTRICT, Kenya, May 22 2011 (IPS)

Gadam sorghum was introduced to semi-arid regions of eastern Kenya as a way for farmers to improve their food security and earn some income from marginal land. The hardy, high-yielding sorghum variety has not only thrived in harsh conditions, it has won a place in the hearts – and plates – of local farmers.

Gadam sorghum. Credit:  Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

Gadam sorghum. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

In 2010, East African Breweries Limited (EABL), the regional beverage giant, was seeking around 12,000 tonnes of sorghum to brew beer.

KASAL, the Kenya Arid and Semi-Arid Lands programme of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), introduced gadam sorghum in eastern Kenya in 2009 for commercial production.

“The programme is a public-private partnership with an aim to improve income and food security among smallholder farmers in arid and semi arid parts of Kenya,” said Dr David Miano, the programme’s national coordinator.

The idea was to introduce a viable crop for largely marginalised land in Kenya’s arid zones, giving farmers there an additional crop that can sustain their livelihoods.

Eastern Kenya is characterised by drought, sometimes going without rain for two to three years at a stretch. After careful selection from several existing sorghum varieties, scientists say that gadam has been found to be the best placed variety able to survive and yield well in such tough climatic conditions.

“Apart from being ideal for beer brewing, it is as nutritious as any other variety of sorghum,” said David Karanja, a research scientist at KARI and the principal investigator for the Gadam Sorghum Production and Marketing Project

Sorghum making converts

Sorghum is not a new crop in this part of the country. Farmers here have always grown red sorghum varieties, but in small quantities as few people cared to eat it, and there was no market for it.

Despite persistent drought in this semi-arid part of the country, farmers have for years opted to grow maize, which is highly vulnerable to the conditions.

Gadam is a sorghum variety from Southern Sudan. It is early-maturing, high yielding, and is highly adapted to stressful drought prone areas. KARI is in the process of crossbreeding it with other varieties – hopefully to come up with a more superior variety.

“When the government introduced this sorghum variety for the first time in 2009, I was reluctant to take it on despite the promise of a ready market,” said Teresia Munyau, the chairlady of the Tears of Women Farmers Self Help Group and one of 3,200 farmers who took part in the project.

She committed two hectares to sorghum – a quarter of the land owned by her family in the village of Mwaani, in Makueni District. She harvested twelve 90-kilogramme bags of grain. Through the self-help group, she sold eight bags to Smart Logistics, the firm contracted by the breweries company to purchase sorghum on its behalf at 1530 Kenyan shillings per bag (17 dollars), and kept four for domestic use.

She plans to plant sorghum on four and a half hectares next planting season.

“Seventeen shillings per kilo – paid by the breweries company – is far higher than the Sh 10 or even less paid for the same quantity of maize, during the harvesting period,” said Veronica Mutindi, a farmer from Kitwasi village. “It’s a premium price, given that before we got access to the commercial market, we used to sell a kilo of red sorghum at five shillings a kilo to local consumers.”

Makueni district farmers were happy with the yield, but researchers say that an outbreak of quelea birds was a major setback. “In some areas, the birds consumed more than a half anticipated yield while still in farms. This means that another season without such an outbreak will guarantee much higher yields,” said Karanja.

Crop proves unexpectedly popular

The initial plan, supported by EABL and KASAL, was for clusters of farmers to combine their harvests for sale to Smart Logistics which would further consolidate the crop and deliver it to the brewers in bulk.

However, only 875 of the more than 3,000 farmers who took part in the pilot project, agreed to sell even part of their harvest to East African Breweries – originally expected to purchase the entire crop.

Like many other farmers, Munyau says it does not make sense to sell her grain when the countryside is expecting drought in the next few months. “I will not go begging for food and alms from humanitarian organisations for my children to eat,” the mother of four told IPS. “That is why I will make sure that I have at least three bags of sorghum in my house at any time.”

“It was due to the plentiful harvests that we started exploring new methods of cooking sorghum, a move that has made the crop popular in just a year,” said Munyau.

Locals have taken to grinding it into flour to make ugali (the flour is mixed with boiling water) or porridge. They also mix the grain with rice, pigeon peas, or beans and other legumes to make delicious meals.

The KASAL program, which is funded by the European Union and the Kenyan government, has now been extended to 3,800 more farmers in other parts of the country, including the Coastal, Rift Valley and Western regions. “We are up-scaling because so far we have not been able to meet the commercial market demand,” said Karanja.

Last year, EABL was seeking 12,000 tonnes of sorghum; farmers in the project delivered close to one thousand tonnes. This year, the company wants even more.

“The breweries company has requested us to supply them with 24 million kilogramnes of sorghum. That is why we must introduce as many farmers as possible to sustain this growing commercial market demand,” said the researcher.

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SOUTHERN AFRICA: Assessing the True Value of Water Sun, 03 Apr 2011 04:07:00 +0000 IPS Correspondents

IPS Correspondent

By IPS Correspondents
WINDHOEK, Apr 3 2011 (IPS)

As water resources in Southern Africa come under pressure from growing population, climate change and increasing industrial and agricultural use, economic accounting for water is among the tools that could aid better management.

Fetching water from a Namibian canal: accurate data on water use is lacking across Southern Africa. Credit:  Servaas van den Bosch/IPS

Fetching water from a Namibian canal: accurate data on water use is lacking across Southern Africa. Credit: Servaas van den Bosch/IPS

“Economic accounting for water – EAW – is a process of systematically measuring the contribution of water to the economy as well as the impact of economic activity such as agriculture, mining, and industry on water resources through abstraction and pollution,” explains Dr Gift Manase, lead author of a just-concluded study for the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

EAW complements information in the System of National Accounts, the standard tool for economic reporting and planning. It collects and quantifies detailed data about water use to understand the value of non-marketed goods and in so doing better appreciate the true contribution of water to the economy, which is presently underestimated.

“To put it very simply, EAW helps us to better understand the trade-offs that are made when using water,” says Dr Amy Sullivan of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network who heads the Limpopo Basin Development Challenge.

The SADC Economic Accounting of Water Use project set out to establish standard methodologies, raise awareness around water accounting and build capacity for countries to set up their own water accounting systems.

The pilot was run in Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia and Zambia as well as in two river basins, the Orange-Senqu and the Maputo. It revealed several challenges to implementing EAW in the region, including collecting the wide range of data required from numerous institutions and in the case of transboundary river basins, coordinating this across national boundaries.

“EAW requires substantial data and data availability varies greatly among SADC member states,” says Manase.

Economic accounting for water produces six accounts that track quantity and quality of water, as well as its flow into the economy and back out again – including monitoring pollutants in wastewater and sewage. It presents the physical stocks and movements of water alongside the economic figures for productivity of the many sectors that use water as an input.

The picture that emerges provides a more comprehensive valuation of water’s contribution to sectors like agriculture and mining and as a consumer good in its own right in the case of domestic water supply. It also accounts for the environmental value of water, for example in the contribution wetlands make to water purification and flood control.

“Economic accounting of water combines different factors relating to water use such as hydrology, economic assessment of water resources, pollution and social distribution. It is a multidimensional system,” says Sullivan.

“It doesn’t just look at the hydrological component or the economic returns, but also takes ecological sustainability and equity into account. So it is a step up from either taking a purely hydrological, economic or ecological point of view. It is an attempt  to plan and manage water resources on a basin level in the best possible way.”

“Although EAW is a critical tool for efficient and effective management of water resources,” says Manase, “it is not yet widely applied in the SADC region.”

At present, only Namibia, Botswana, Mauritius and South Africa are compiling water accounts at varying levels of detail.

More accurate assessment of the role water plays in the economy – and the effects of economic uses of water on present and future availability – will aid comparison of benefits across sectors and accurately document inefficient use. It could also help water managers make a strong case for investment in water infrastructure.

“Water accounting started as a research tool, but it is slowly moving on to be a useful tool to inform policy-making,” says Sullivan. “It is still early days, the potential of economic water accounting has not yet been reached, but as the models get more detailed and allow for elaborate scenario-testing EAW will be better suited for decision-making.”

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Sierra Leone Facing Facts of Teenage Pregnancy Sun, 03 Apr 2011 02:10:00 +0000 Mohamed Fofanah By Mohamed Fofanah
FREETOWN, Apr 3 2011 (IPS)

On Apr. 5, the United Nations Children’s Fund will launch a report on teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone. Teenage pregnancies account for 40 percent of maternal deaths in the country, and the report comes as public health authorities recalibrate strategy to address a problem that endangers both mothers and children.

This young woman from Makeni dropped out of school when she had her first child at 16. Credit:  Anna Jeffreys/IRIN

This young woman from Makeni dropped out of school when she had her first child at 16. Credit: Anna Jeffreys/IRIN

Seventy percent of teenage girls in Sierra Leone are married, according to a 2008 survey by the World Health Organization, in a country where early marriage is supported by traditional practice.

The United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) report, “A Glimpse Into the World of Teenage Pregnancy in Sierra Leone”, states that “such importance is given to girls marrying as virgins that the age of marriage often coincides with the first occurrence of female menstruation”.

Drawing on research conducted in four regions, UNICEF’s report finds the typical consequences of teen pregnancy are social stigma, unstable marriages, poverty and the end of a girl’s education. UNICEF cautions that comprehensive evidence-based data on the phenomenon is still limited, but the issue has become a focus of concern for educators, doctors, politicians and parents alike.

Poverty and stigma

Risks of early pregnancy

Sierra Leone has an extremely high maternal mortality rate, calculated as 970 deaths per 100,000 live births. The additional risks of childbirth by young women are an important contributing factor.

Neonatal deaths are 50 percent more likely amongst children born to teenage mothers; low birth weights are also more frequent.

Sources: WHO, UNICEF

Another factor cited by UNICEF is extreme poverty, which has resulted in many children being left to fend for themselves. The lack of money for basic needs such as food or clothes drives girls towards transactional sex.

Kadiatu – not her real name – lives in Kissy Mess Mess, in the eastern part of the capital, Freetown, with her three children. Now 27, she recalls how she became pregnant with her first child.

“We were a poor family and I was really in want for virtually everything, from food, clothing, to even paying school charges… so I got this man that was ready to provide all of these, so i yielded to him,” she told IPS.

Her boyfriend was 30; she was just 15 at the time, preparing to take her Basic School Certificate Examination. She was taken to the doctor with what was suspected to be appendicitis – it turned out that she was three months pregnant.

“I told my boyfriend immediately,” Kadiatu recalls.

His reaction? “You have to get an abortion! Just get rid of it!”

“The man – who had been showering me with gifts and telling me all kinds of loving words – denied that he was responsible for the pregnancy,” Kadiatu recounts. She had the baby, but like many others in her position, she dropped out of school.

“I became pregnant again at 17 for almost the same reasons as the first pregnancy. Now I have three children, I am still a single mother and my only means of survival is to hawk fruits in the market and rely on favours from men who promise love,” she says, “but what they really want is to sleep with you and run away afterwards.”

In 2009, village chiefs in one northern province passed bylaws that require that when a schoolgirl falls pregnant, she and the father must both drop out of school. This scheme quickly drew criticism for only compounding the problem of stigma and a high dropout rate.

In Koinadugu District, also in the north, the Biriwa Youth Association for Development took the opposite tack, offering school-age girls between the ages of 12 and 16 the chance to win scholarships to attend university – if they passed regular examinations by a community nurse to “prove” they were virgins. This initiative too was quickly scrapped.

Stigma aggravates problems

In a draft report for the World Health Organisation, Dr Helenlouise Taylor noted that few teens have ante-natal checkups, instead trying to hide their pregnancy or try to abort. This makes early detection of potential problems in a high-risk group very difficult.

For her research, directed towards developing strategies to reduce Sierra Leone’s maternal mortality rate, Taylor visited 14 districts of the country, observing conditions, interviewing health workers and using a questionnaire to collect information about patterns and trends of maternal care as well as training and equipment in health facilities.

In the draft report’s recommendations for teenage pregnancy, Taylor says measures to reduce coerced sex and unsafe abortion and increase access to contraception for adolescents are all important, and makes several important suggestions regarding information and reducing social stigma to encourage young mothers to make use of available health care.

She urges a review of life skills and biology in the school curriculum, as well as tighter links between schools and antenatal clinics – possibly even offering antenatal care at schools. She also calls for appropriate training for health personnel and teachers to help both groups communicate accurate and effective information on sex and birth control to teens.

Maud Droogleever Fortuyn, child protection director for UNICEF in Sierra Leone, told IPS that bringing about changes in behaviour and attitudes will take time. She said UNICEF has been supporting local NGOs conducting baseline surveys to improve understanding of the extent and nature of teenage pregnancy, developing modules to improve knowledge, as well as working with traditional authorities to develop effective bylaws that will support teen mothers, especially with completing school.

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UGANDA: Sun Smiling on Renewable Energy Initiative Fri, 01 Apr 2011 16:13:00 +0000 Wambi Michael

Wambi Michael

By Wambi Michael
KAMPALA, Apr 1 2011 (IPS)

Clementine Auma was still living in a displaced person’s camp in Gulu district when she acquired the treasure she’s gone into the house to fetch. She re-emerges from her home with a white box in her arms: a solar oven.

Women get a first look at a Sun Oven in northern Uganda. Credit:  Wambi Michael/IPS

Women get a first look at a Sun Oven in northern Uganda. Credit: Wambi Michael/IPS

She opens the box to pull out the oven, which she quickly assembles, folding out four aluminium reflectors from a black box fitted with glass. The 65-year-old Auma squints at the sky, then positions the oven to best direct the sun’s rays on a pot to boil water for tea.

“You have to make sure that you see the shadow of the oven while facing the sun, so you have positioned it well to trap the sun,” she says.

Auma is one of a small handful to receive a Sun Oven during a pilot project in southwestern and northern Uganda, testing them before manufacture and sale nationwide.

“It is very good,” she says of her oven,” because you can boil tea even while you are digging in the garden.

Sun Oven

Her oven is a box roughly 50 x 50 centimetres, and 30 centimetres deep. Its outer shell is made of plastic, lined with insulation to keep heat in, and then an inner shell of anodised aluminium and a clever swinging shelf that both allows the hot air in the cooking chamber to circulate all around the pot and automatically levels the base of the oven, which should be tilted towards the sun using an adjustable leg built into the back of the box.

The cooking chamber – matt black to better convert the sun’s rays into heat – is covered with tempered glass to keep the hot air in: the Sun Oven, say its manufacturers, reaches temperatures comparable to a standard oven. The whole ensemble weighs 9.5 kilos.

Margaret Sempijja, says these ovens can be used to cook almost any kind of food, as long as the chef knows how to mix it before putting it in. “Some people don’t know that posho [a staple meal of ground maize] can be prepared in this oven. But posho which is prepared in this oven is wonderful,” she smiles.

Another woman with experience using the solar oven, Saida Matovu, says she has found it both convenient and efficient, but she complains that the pot is very small if one has a large family to feed – and of course the whole apparatus is useless on rainy days.

A larger version of the solar oven is also available, big enough to serve in institutional settings such as a school or an orphanage.

Over 90 percent of Uganda’s population relies on biomass – usually wood – for cooking and heating in rural and urban areas alike. Studies by the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP) indicate that firewood and charcoal contribute 88 and 6 percent to the country’s total energy consumption, respectively. Electricity and hydrocarbons account for the remainder.

Appropriate technology

Prince Ronald Mutebi first saw a Sun Oven at a Rotarians’ conference in a Chicago hotel seven years ago and immediately thought that it could be a useful tool to both slow deforestation from harvesting firewood and protect the health of Ugandan women suffering from respiratory diseases linked to long hours spent cooking over a smoky wood fire.

Mutebi, now the Executive Director of Sun Oven Uganda Tek Consult Group, partnered with U.S.-based Sun Oven International to import the stoves which he has since field tested in rural areas. He now plans to set up a manufacturing plant that will distribute the sun stoves across East Africa.

“I knew about the technology but I had never seen the technology this effective. And when I saw it at the conference in my mind I said Ugandan sits just at the equator so we have the abundant sun. So if it works elsewhere, then it will work in Uganda,” Mutebi told IPS in an interview.

He explained that the oven is so well insulated that it can keep food warm for up to four hours, as long as the cooking chamber is not opened.

“It is culturally sensitive: you can cook dinner at 5:00 p.m. and not serve it until later in the night. So it can work in most communities where dinner is normally served in the night [long after the sun has set].”

These ovens were developed in the mid 1980s by Tom Burns, a retired restaurant owner in the United States and long-term member of Rotary International, who set out to make a durable and inexpensive solar oven. Rugged and rust-proof thanks to the use of aluminium, the ovens, according to Mutebi, should have a a fifteen-year lifespan.

Mutebi says the oven will initially be sold in Uganda for the equivalent of 170 dollars, but that price could go down once mass production starts. “Still that cost is high for an average Ugandan. So we’re planning to create sort of a hire-purchase scheme for the ovens, whereby people can pay in installments,” he said.

Spreading the word

Several development groups in Uganda have seen the Sun Oven as an opportunity to bring change in communities. The Nyanya-Kentale Kukama Butonde Group, a local environmental group based in Rakai district in southwestern Uganda is promoting it.

David Sentongo, the group’s chair, told IPS that demand for the ovens is steadily increasing as the communities come to know about its benefits.

“We got fifteen ovens which we distributed to a first group of our members. Out of the fifteen, we gave two to some people in the communities who are not our members, just to show those Sun Ovens are for everyone,” he said.

He wants the group to acquire an industrial-size unit that could be used as a community oven for baking.

Mutebi said Sun Oven Uganda already has the components to assemble 365 solar ovens in the country; he hopes to put them together and on the market before the end of the year.

He told IPS that price remains the biggest obstacle to the ovens rapidly gaining a foothold. Relatively few households will have that much money to put down, but high interest rates for consumer loans make arranging financing a difficult challenge.

Back in Gulu district, Clementine Auma is reluctant to lend her precious oven to anyone, despite its portability. “Some people come to borrow it to make bread, but my fear is that it could get damaged.”

Back into her thatched-roof house it disappears: a valuable tool to protect health and the environment. And to make marvelous, flavourful posho.

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Combating Poverty With ‘Poor Economics’ Thu, 31 Mar 2011 13:40:00 +0000 A. D. McKenzie By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Mar 31 2011 (IPS)

French economist Esther Duflo thinks poverty can be alleviated or even eradicated with the right policies. All it takes is for politicians to “translate research into action,” implementing programmes that have been shown to work.

French economist Esther Duflo Credit: A. D. McKenzie/IPS

French economist Esther Duflo Credit: A. D. McKenzie/IPS

But that is easier said than done. Duflo, who last year won the American Economic Association’s prestigious John Bates Clark Medal, acknowledges that it is sometimes frustrating to get policy makers to apply the results of research that could improve people’s lives. Sometimes they do not know the evidence and so cannot take the right approach, she adds.

In April a new book by Duflo and co-author Abhijit Banerjee, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, will once more turn the spotlight on actions to tackle poverty. The book aims to make 2011 the year that the “economics of poverty” become a key part of international political discussions.

“Fundamentally, I think it is a subject that people are interested in,” Duflo told IPS. “The differences in income between the poor world and the rich world are so great that people have to be interested.”

The 38-year-old Duflo, who is a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and who often lectures in France as well, is credited with making development economics “chic”, according to some French reviewers.

Doing her PhD at MIT, Duflo chose to enter an unusual sphere of research — at a time when most students specialised in other fields, and the subject was not as “popular” as it is now becoming.

“It was not considered a fancy area of study,” she says. “There was a generation of people who had started looking at development from other fields. They had their own theories and only a few were economists. What I contributed to doing was to start going into detail. But I did have advisers and mentors.”

Duflo’s major role in the field has been to use research to show which programmes are the most effective in combating poverty. According to MIT, her work “uses randomised field experiments to identify highly specific programmes that can alleviate poverty, ranging from low-cost medical treatments to innovative education programmes.”

In a landmark study, Duflo, along with Banerjee and Rachel Glennerster, executive director of Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), discovered that the rate at which families in northern India will immunize their children jumps from about 5 percent to nearly 40 percent when parents are offered a small bag of lentils as an incentive.

Duflo seems an unlikely person to try to argue with those in power. Slightly built and eschewing the glamourous-intelligentsia look for which many French intellectuals are known, she seems at first glance to be a down-at-heel graduate student.

When she begins talking, however, there is no doubting the importance of her research. What she does is backed by scientific evidence, demonstrated by graphs and other tools.

Duflo is also a director of MIT’s J-PAL, an organisation she co-founded in 2003 with Banerjee, MIT’s Ford International Professor of Economics, and Sendhil Mullainathan, an economist who now teaches at Harvard University.

J-PAL’s researchers do scientific studies in various countries, working with national governments as well as non-governmental organisations to implement programmes to eliminate poverty, says Helene Giacobino, the general director of J-PAL Europe.

“Much of our work is to evaluate the different policies or programmes against poverty and to see the impact and effectiveness,” Giacobino told IPS.

Since 2003, more than 235 evaluations have been carried out in 38 different countries, examining unemployment, absenteeism in education, social programmes and other issues.

Many of the evaluations are long-term studies, lasting up to three years or more. In Kenya, for instance, J-PAL’s researchers found that school absenteeism was linked to intestinal worms. When de-worming pills were administered to children, researchers found that absenteeism was reduced by 25 percent.

Since then, the Bill Gates Foundation has supported a programme to provide de-worming medicine to those who need it, and J-PAL helped to start Deworm the World, a non-profit group that helped the Kenyan government treat 3.6 million children in 2009, according to MIT.

In another investigation on the use of mosquito nets in Africa, the J-PAL affiliated researcher Pascaline Dupas showed that people who were given free nets used them just as much as those who bought them.

The findings debunked the myth that people who get things for free do not appreciate or utilise them.

“This showed that it was better to hand out nets freely to people so as to prevent malaria,” said Duflo. “It’s a way of helping those who couldn’t afford to buy them anyway.”

According to many of her colleagues, Duflo brings “something new” to the field of development.

“She’s totally involved, and she contributes to making a change in the world,” Giacobino said.

Duflo herself says that she is motivated by the example of her mother, a doctor who used to travel to developing countries to help victims of war.

“I was always interested in these questions of is there something that can be done to help the lives of the poor,” Duflo said. “I realised that economics was a good angle even if it seems a little remote.”

She said that with the new book and J-PAL, she and her colleagues “hope to try to improve policies that affect the lives of the poor, leading to better health, education, and access to finance.”

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MALAWI: Putting Knowledge Into Practice in Childbirth Thu, 31 Mar 2011 02:57:00 +0000 IPS Correspondents

Claire Ngozo

By IPS Correspondents
LILONGWE, Mar 31 2011 (IPS)

Post-partum haemorrhage is the leading cause of maternal mortality worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation. A decade of applying research to midwifery practice in one Malawi district demonstrates that PPH is quite easy to prevent.

One in four maternal deaths worldwide is due to post-partum haemorrhage (PPH) – excessive bleeding after childbirth; for Africa the figure is one in three.

Malawi has an extremely high rate of maternal mortality, at 807 women per 100,000 live births, with 25 percent of these due to PPH. But these figures represent an improvement over 2004 when maternal mortality was 1,120 per 100,000 live births.


Maternal deaths are overwhelmingly preventable, if warning signs are noted, timely action is taken, and affordable and easy-to-use drugs are available to birth attendants.

Elimase Kamanga, the reproductive health coordinator at Dedza District Hospital in central Malawi, told IPS changes to birthing practices have brought great success to the unit.

“We used to remove the placenta manually before a policy was put in place to for the placenta to come out naturally. The women would bleed uncontrollably in such a situation and many would die due to loss of blood,” said Kamanga.

Research shows that active management of the third stage of labour – during which the umbilical cord is tied off and the placenta is expelled – is key to preventing post-partum haemmorhage. This involves giving the labouring woman oxytocin, controlled cord traction as needed (assisting delivery of the placenta), and massage of the uterus once the placenta has been delivered.

Kamanga said skilled birth attendants are no longer allowed to conduct manual removal of the placenta in Malawi.

“Now a deliberate policy is in place for the administration of active management of the third stage of labour (AMTSL), a medical process for preventing and treating PPH,” said Kamanga.


But challenges remain, says the senior midwife. Many women in Malawi give birth outside of a health facility and this is frustrating the efforts to manage birth complications. The 2004 Demographic and Health Survey says up to 43 percent of pregnant women in Malawi give birth without skilled attendants.

“Many women still go to traditional birth attendants and some give birth at home where they are attended to by their mother or mother-in-law. In this case the women do not have quality care and when they bleed heavily they die. Most times such women are brought to a medical facility when it is too late to be given medical help,” said Kamanga.

But the Dedza district where Kamanga works an area where initiatives to reduce maternal mortality are working; a community maternal health programme was set up here in 2000, and not a single maternal death has been registered in Chaponda village since 2006.

The maternal health programme involves local people and traditional leaders in task forces and committees on safe motherhood. Pregnant women are encouraged to visit clinics for antenatal care and to deliver their babies in hospital if possible. The community has enacted by-laws against giving birth at home or at the hands of traditional birth attendants.

Evelyn Kaphuka, 43, a mother of four from Chaponda village, is one woman who had a narrow escape due to post-partum haemmorhage. “I went to a traditional birth attendant when I gave birth to my first born child, who is now 24 years old. I bled a lot soon after he was born.”

She was rushed to the hospital after she fainted. “I was lucky because there was a vehicle in the village belonging to one of my nephews who was visiting from town. I surely would have died otherwise, because it takes close to three hours to get to the hospital on a bicycle, but my nephew was able to get me there within 30 minutes,” said Kaphuka.

For more than a month afterwards she was too weak to even nurse her son.

“I realise the importance of going to hospital to give birth and I encourage all pregnant women in my area to access medical care at birth. The other three children I have given birth to were born at the hospital,” Kaphuka said.

Malawi is working towards sustaining and expanding implementation of measures against PPH, according to Eliza Chodzadza, a lecturer in maternal and child health at University of Malawi’s Kamuzu College of Nursing.

“Active management of third stage of labour is one of the major issues in the midwifery curriculum. It is traditional practice now in every labour ward in Malawi,” said Chodzadza.

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KENYA: Sustainable Energy in the Heart of the Slums Tue, 29 Mar 2011 02:15:00 +0000 Miriam Gathigah

Miriam Gathigah

By Miriam Gathigah
NAIROBI, Mar 29 2011 (IPS)

Talk about foul foundations: the Katwekera Tosha Bio Centre is built on the stuff that goes into toilets. This community centre in the Nairobi slum of Kibera goes well beyond solving sanitation problems – it is a model for green energy, a meeting place for locals, and turning a profit for its operators.

The dire sanitation systems available to the hundreds of thousands living in Kibera, often called Africa’s biggest slum, has been well-documented.

Less talked about than the infamous flying toilets – bags full of faeces tossed as far as possible, neighbours beware! – is the challenge of household energy for the urban poor.

The high, and rising cost of fuel – kerosene, paraffin, charcoal, firewood – takes an enormous bite out of the income of poor households. The use of polluting energy sources in closed spaces levies an additional charge against the health of the poor; the wider environmental implications of fossil fuels or inefficiently burned biomass completes a glum accounting.

Every challenge an opportunity

“The Umande Trust is a rights-based agency which believes that modest resources, strategically invested in support of community-led initiatives, can significantly improve access to water and sanitation for all,” says Paul Muchire, the Trust’s communication manager.

This mission statement has guided the Trust towards partnerships with community-based organisations to improve the living conditions of people in places like Kibera.

The Trust first set out to build toilets and bathrooms, but had a larger vision: TOSHA, “Total Sanitation and Hygiene Access”, was born.

“The idea was to exploit biogas from these toilets to provide household energy that could be used by the community in preparing their various dishes,” says David Kihara, who manages the business side of the Katwekera Tosha Bio Centre.

The centre has toilets and bathrooms on the ground floor – the toilets are connected to a bio-digester, with a dome-shaped holding tank in which biogas is produced. Raw human waste from the toilets flows in, and bacteria break it down, releasing methane gas which collects at the top of the domed tank.

“A pipe is then plumbed into these toilets and connected to the first floor, which is where the cooking area is located,” says Kihara. The gas is piped to collective stoves one floor up – and is usually sufficient for community members to cook on throughout the day.

“We pay a very small fixed fee for whatever dish we would like to cook. It is a very cheap source of energy and we cook on a first-come, first-served basis,” says area resident Nina Oyaro.

More than merely functional

Muchire explains that the centre is intended to be much more than a utilitarian place where people can relieve themselves, take a bath or cook.

“They are centres for many things. We have built the capacity of the CBOs attached to various bio centres to a level where they can fully exploit the space on where the centres stand.”

It is left to the community to decide what sort of venture to set up on the top floor. “Some bio centres have set up DSTV [satellite television], where people can come and watch matches for a fee, as is the case with Katwekera Tosha,” says Otieno Owour, another resident.

Muchire says the centres have become important places to exchange information as well, as can be seen from the posters lined up on the walls communicating one message or another.

“They are not just community kitchens but also meeting places where people can leisurely while away the evening after a long day’s work,” Muchire adds.

From a business perspective, the profits from these centres are also significant. Katwekera Tosha makes a monthly profit of between 350 and 650 dollars.

This money benefits the residents who have registered with the community-based organisation.

The centre opens at 5:30 a.m. and closes around eleven at night. Muchire would like to extend these hours: “The ideal situation would be to operate 24 hours, but insecurity in the slums is a reality.”

Perhaps that’s the next challenge for the community and Umande Trust. Centres like Katwekera Tosha are a giant, sustainable step towards assuring the energy security of slum dwellers.

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SOUTH AFRICA: Who Says Research Can’t Be Dramatic? Mon, 28 Mar 2011 03:16:00 +0000 IPS Correspondents

Nyasha Musandu

By IPS Correspondents

In the early 1990s, a group of researchers set off for a small rural village in the eastern part of South Africa. Their intention was simple: teach the community how to rehydrate sick babies.

Armed with a one litre soda bottle, a simple rehydration recipe, posters, pamphlets and talks, they spent weeks sharing their knowledge as part of a national initiative to reduce child mortality.

But months later, there appeared to be little change in the village. Researchers sent to document the campaign’s success were surprised. The instructions were correct and had been distributed; the message had been received… but no one in the community had a one-litre bottle.

It was a simple oversight, easily rectified by changing the guidelines to use a different container to make up the recipe – every kitchen in the village had a cup.

Soul City’s Dr Sue Goldstein tells this story to illustrate how it’s possible to fail to communicate simple, useful scientific knowledge without an adequate understanding of your target audience.

Tailoring the message

The Soul City Institute for Health and Development Communication, a non profit organisation, was started in 1992 in a bid to reduce child mortality caused by dehydration. “Children were dying unnecessarily and it was because people did not know what they were supposed to be doing,” says Goldstein.

Information was widely available on the process of rehydration but it did not seem to be having an impact on the desired audience. After studying the situation, Soul City decided to launch a television soap opera to capture their target audience. A radio show and newspaper series quickly followed.

In trying to describe the relationship between research and mass media campaigns, Goldstein uses the phrase “simplification versus complexity.” At one end stands the scientist who seeks in-depth knowledge and at the other the ordinary non-scientific individual who prefers a simple explanation.

Melissa Meyer, Project Coordinator for the HIV/AIDS and the Media Project, says, “Research and entertainment need not be at odds with each other. With just a slight adjustment in perspective, they can be used very effectively to complement each other.”

Programmes such as Soul City reinsert real people into research. “Truly good entertainment is well-researched,” says Meyer.

Signs of success

Soul City appears to have found a formula that successfully conveys important health messages while grabbing the attention of its audience through a dramatic storyline containing all the elements of a prime time soapie.

Rumbidzai Musiyarira, a fan of the show, says, “Soul City opens your eyes to taking precautions and protecting yourself.”

HIV and AIDS-related issues have been a recurring theme in the series.

“The show is very enlightening” says Musiyarira. “I realised how easy it is for HIV to spread within a family or community.”

One storyline followed a woman unknowingly infected with HIV by her husband through several episodes. She believed her husband was being faithful, but as things unfold, he proved to have had multiple partners. The readily identifiable scenario highlights research showing that multiple concurrent partners play in the spread of HIV in Southern Africa.

“It is my absolute passion to get scientific knowledge out,” says Goldstein. Through an intensive nine step process, scientific research is translated into Soul City content by a team of creative agencies, researchers, test groups and others.

“We not only measure our reach, but we also measure what people understand from the campaign and whether they have actually made any changes in their lives in relation to the show,” says Goldstein.

Issues such as depression, tuberculosis, housing and alcohol abuse have all featured in the series.

Deborah Ndlovu, another long time follower of Soul City, believes watching the programme can change behaviour, having seen changes in her own life.

“It teaches you to be honest to your partner,” she says. “You must be fair and you should know your status and practice safe behaviour.”

More than just tv

Soul City is a marriage between education and entertainment. A booklet is released after each thirteen episode series has been aired, to reinforce the basic messages and provide supplementary scientific information. Soul City also has a Facebook page and a website, but Goldstein admitted that the organisation has yet to truly harness the power of the web. “I think we are still in the learning phase with that kind of media.”

The television show reaches approximately 16 million South Africans and has drawn the attention of numerous organisations who hope to get their messages across via this medium.

It is not always easy. “We currently have a meeting with a group of people interested in climate change and they want the scientific evidence to go out in quite a scientific way,” Goldstein says. “it’s not necessarily going to speak to people. You have to reach people, otherwise they are just not going to listen.”

She admitted that not all the show’s themes have been successful. No changes in people’s attitudes were recorded after an episode in series 6 focusing on xenophobia was aired. “It wasn’t negative change but there was no change, we made the local character too sympathetic and that was a problem,” says Goldstein.

Careful testing prior to the show being aired has reduced the number of failed attempts.

Goldstein emphasised the need for innovation, research and a thorough knowledge of the intended target market for any organisation that was seeking to create a similar programme. “Identify who needs this information and what media they consume.”

Television, newspaper, radio and magazines are available to organisations to reach broad audiences. South Africa’s Public broadcaster is a powerful partner, although it sometimes presents a problem for the edutainment model as it tries to dictate that the show will air at a less than optimal time.

“Journalists are always looking for material, and if you can provide it in an easy to read way they will be very happy with you,” says Goldstein.

Research, dedication and a firm belief in the importance and relevance of its messages have enabled Soul City to put research findings, scientific knowledge and life-saving messages into broad circulation.

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