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Research in Africa reduces health spending and prevents diseases of affluence

Health workers have always sought ways to fight disease in vulnerable groups in the population. It is now clear that such research also benefits more prosperous countries. African worm infections and innovative thermometers have shown Leiden researchers how to fight diseases of affluence and keep health care affordable.

Worms fight diseases of affluence

When immunoparasitologist Maria Yazdanbakhsh looked at the blood of children from rural Gabon, she saw something unexpected: without ever having exhibited any symptoms, the children had antibodies against many allergens. Their protection came from worms, which infect a large part of the global rural population.

Yazdanbakhsh found comparable results in Ghana, Indonesia and Siberia. Infections with ‘parasites’ such as hookworms have been found to protect their carriers from diseases of affluence such as diabetes II, inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s and allergies such as asthma and hay fever. Although severe worm infections can be harmful, the worms also have positive effects, Yazdanbakhsh concluded. Her team at the Leiden University Medical Centre studies which molecules are responsible for this, so that they can be used as a vaccine to prevent the diseases or as a drug to treat them.

The research dossier Immunity, Infection and Tolerance delves further into this research.

A worm infection is often contracted through the feet. The larvae penetrate the skin and end up in the bloodstream. Hookworms and other parasitic worms are prevalent in large parts of Africa, South America and Asia.

Academic collaboration

If it were up to Yazdanbakhsh, the Leiden health researchers would conduct their research in close, equal partnership with academics in Africa itself. They work in areas where the spread of disease is extremely polarised: while people in rural areas still suffer from various infectious diseases, people in the growing urban centres suffer from diseases of affluence. This makes such research interesting for any country that is faced with these diseases now or in the future.

Affordable health care

The arts, sciences and social sciences also work together intensively. Besides working as a development economist at the ASCL, André Leliveld is co-director of the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa. Here the universities of Delft, Leiden and Rotterdam have joined forces to seek out high-quality but affordable innovations for African markets. Leliveld gives the example of the development of an affordable thermometer for community use in remote areas. It sounds simple, but it must be cheap, reliable, robust and socially acceptable for those who use it. Furthermore, it must indicate how (un)healthy a person’s temperature is and it must be possible for a large group of people to use it without spreading infection. Although thus far such solutions have generally been created for developing countries, they increasingly inspire discoveries that can also help western countries – for instance, how to provide affordable health care in the Netherlands with its ageing population.

In Africa, health problems are one of the main reasons that households fall into poverty, says Leliveld. They have to use their savings or sell their livestock, land or harvest and thus no longer have a buffer. They often need this money for relatively simple things such as malaria pills, antibiotics, safe births or minor operations. Although many people belong to small informal networks that share such unexpected costs, they are still responsible for the lion’s share themselves. In Togo, Leliveld and colleagues are conducting research into whether the introduction of community-based health insurance schemes make it easier for people to deal with the financial burden of health risks. Furthermore, countries such as Togo are seeking ways to link this kind of local initiative to a national health insurance system.

Centre for Frugual Innovation in Africa

The affordable thermometer made especially for the use in rural areas in Africa, would also be a very useful and cheap solution in the Netherlands.

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