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Cooperation is crucial for tackling health challenges
Author: FMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Sue Segar
Published: 24/11/2022

Not only does Africa - with its limited resources - bear a disproportionately large burden of infectious- and non-communicable diseases and injuries, but it is also more vulnerable to the impact from disasters linked to climate change, such as flooding, droughts and fires, which are largely brough on by developed nations.

This was one of the key points highlighted at the recent Stellenbosch University-Consortium of Universities for Global Health Hybrid Conference 2022.

This was the first joint conference between Stellenbosch University (SU) and the American-based Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH) to be hosted in Africa, and the theme was 'Catalysing Global Health Innovations for Sustainable Development'. It featured a number of international researchers, practitioners and students, representing a range of health-related disciplines. There were a number of keynote addresses, panels and workshops, as well as research paper and poster presentations relating to global health.

The first two days of the conference were held virtually, while the last three days took place in person in Stellenbosch.

Professor Taryn Young, Executive Head of the Department of Global Health at SU's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), who was involved in organising the conference, said it attracted a number of people, from local and regional academic and health entities.

The conference came about through the long-term partnership between SU and CUGH. CUGH's mission is to support academic institutions and partners to improve the wellbeing of people and the planet through education, research, service, and advocacy.

The FMHS, as a recognised leader in global health research, has been a member of CUGH since 2016 and co-hosted the 2018 CUGH Conference held in New York City.

This year's conference arose out of a vision by the two institutions to highlight African initiatives and institutions, while providing an international forum for global contributions. One of its key aims was to strengthen partnerships and networks with a view to tackling global health challenges.

A major focus of the conference was the sharing of research from across Africa and the world, relevant to global health. It comprised four tracks related to global health: Implementation Science & Capacity-building; NCDs & Infectious Diseases; Human Rights & Equity; and Environment & Climate Change.

Keynote speaker, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of the humanitarian organisation Gift of the Givers, said the pandemic exposed serious gaps in health care systems in Africa. He described how health infrastructure on the continent was unevenly distributed and often of poor quality, and said that only half of primary healthcare facilities in sub-Saharan Africa had access to clean water and adequate sanitation. Sooliman stressed that everybody has a role to play in making a difference in society.

Keynote speaker for the virtual conference, Dr Elisabet Sahtouris, Evolutionary Biologist and Futurist from the Chaminade University in Hawaii, called upon the human race to start listening to nature and to build caring and sharing communities for the health of all people and the planet. She stressed the need for a shift “from competition to cooperation" which will require all humans to be active change agents for a more peaceful world.

In his address, Dr Keith Martin, executive director of CUGH, focused on the importance of integrating health into global discussions on climate change.

The South African chapter of Women in Global Health was launched at the conference, and the new president, Professor Flavia Senkubuge, laid out some of the initiatives for advancing women in global health. In her address she stressed that Africa must be ahead in innovation with regard to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the agenda must be “an agenda for all, including women".

FMHS Vice Dean: Research and Internalisation, Professor Nico Gey van Pittius, said the conference covered important global health topics.

“During the recent pandemic we were made fully aware of the inequities in healthcare in the world. As Africans it is important for us to ensure our research agendas are aimed at solving pressing African challenges, while still helping to solve the challenges of the world," he said.

“Our philosophy at SU has always been to create knowledge that will promote health and development, have a societal impact, inform national and international policies and guidelines, and ultimately make a difference to the people we represent and serve," said Gey van Pittius. “The department which has been especially successful at doing this is our Department of Global Health under the capable leadership of Prof Taryn Young, who is also the director of the Centre for Evidence-based Health Care."

Young said the key takeaway from the conference was that there is still much work needed to address the huge burden of disease. “A strong commitment to working together across sectors is needed to make a difference."