In January 2021, Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) launched a new postgraduate diploma in Medical Toxicology. This diploma is the first postgraduate training programme in medical toxicology in Africa and marks an important milestone for both the university and the broader healthcare community.
Over the past few years, there has been a growing demand in academia and the healthcare industry for expertise in medical toxicology – the field of medicine dedicated to the evaluation and treatment of patients who have been exposed to either venom or poison. In response to this need, the Division of Clinical Pharmacology successfully developed and launched a Postgraduate Diploma in Medical Toxicology.
A focus on toxins unique to the African continent
“There is currently a shortage of trained staff with knowledge of poisoning, especially of poisoning by means of chemicals that are unique to the African continent," says Carine Marks, director of the Tygerberg Poison Information Centre. “The proposed programme in toxicology will aim to address the need to provide training opportunities in this scientific field in both South Africa, and in the broader African continent."
The application process for this diploma started in 2016, according to Marks. Until then, toxicology was only taught to undergraduate students in the BSc Physiotherapy and MBChB programmes, but from this year onward this field of study will be open to postgraduate students as well.
“Candidates completing the course will have the practical skills to assist in the diagnoses and management of patients exposed to poisonous chemicals," Marks explains. “They will be able to work in medical facilities where they will be able to advise other healthcare professionals on the management of poisoned and envenomed patients."
The entry criteria for this 18-month course is a BSc or MSc qualification (NQF Level 7 or above) from an accredited institution as approved by the FMHS. For example, this year's class of 21 students consists of medical doctors, PhD participants, biomedical technologists, pharmacists, paediatricians and emergency medicine specialists, among others. Besides appealing to qualified healthcare professionals, this diploma also aims to reach students from other African countries to establish a diverse student community that benefits the entire continent.
A closer look at spiders, snakes and scorpions
In Marks' opinion, one of the highlights of this course will be the fifth and final module, which will focus on exposure to biological chemicals such as those found in the venom of snakes, spiders, scorpions and in poisonous plants. “We are planning to make this module available as a short course as well," she says.
Although this postgraduate diploma is the first of its kind, it is supported by well-established institutions such as Stellenbosch University and the Tygerberg Poisons Information Centre. Education has always been a strong focal point for this centre.
In 2018, Marks was part of the international team that updated the World Health Organisation's Guidelines for Establishing a Poison Centre. Collaboration within the WHO further enables the Tygerberg Poisons Information Centre to be a leading partner in innovative toxicology training and research. “South Africa has a legally binding global agreement to protect public health. Our poison centre has the obligation to detect and respond to events caused by toxic agents, and to inform the WHO if impact on public health is thought to be serious, unusual or intentional, and whether there is a significant risk of spread or release, with the potential to spread across national borders."
Against this backdrop of international collaboration and resourcefulness, the course promises to provide world-class training to students wishing to expand their knowledge in the very important field of toxicology. For more information, contact the programme coordinator and chair Carine Marks: email@example.com
Caption: Carine Marks, Arina Du Plessis, Tracy Kellerman, Alma van der Merwe, Victoria Mathane and Cassius Phogole are some of the lecturers presenting the new postgraduate diploma in toxicology.
Photo credit: Wilma Stassen