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NWU academic says back to basics for TB programmes

Deaths from Tuberculosis (TB) have increased globally for the first time in over a decade. This is according to the World Health Organisation’s Global TB Report that was released in October 2021. The increase in deaths is due to “reduced access to TB diagnosis and treatment in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic”, the report found.

The situation is no different in South Africa. In December, Health Minister Joe Phaahla confirmed that Covid-19 had side-lined the fight against TB, as well as HIV and Aids. 

North-West University (NWU) academic in the subject group Biochemistry, Dr Aurelia Williams, says prior to Covid-19 South Africa was doing well in terms of getting TB-related messages out to the public.

“In fact, the global plan to reduce TB incidence and mortality by 80 and 90% respectively – as per the 2020 ‘End TB Strategy’ – was in sight. Unfortunately, Covid-19 set this progress back by years.”

She says public awareness of TB needs to be renewed to get the TB programme going again.

“It is important to identify and address the key factors which led to the lapse of TB programmes.

“During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, stigma and fear fuelled misinformation which led to a distrust in the healthcare system. Rebuilding trust in the health care systems and a multidisciplinary approach aimed at TB disease diagnosis, prevention, treatment, and monitoring should be implemented with evidenced-based approaches, epidemiologic modelling, and socio-economic standing considered,” adds Dr Williams.

She says this multidisciplinary approach should include all relevant stakeholders and role players, for instance healthcare practitioners, government, the private sector, media, influencers and community workers.

“Platforms should include active on-site campaigning as before, the effective use of digital platforms, using various testing technologies to monitor treatment response and/or adherence, and making hotlines freely accessible and integrated with applications such as WhatsApp.”

 “When campaigning, emphasis should be placed on consistent messaging. “At the centre of the multidisciplinary approach should be health literacy and the identification of health misinformation and its effects, to create awareness and empower individuals to make informed behavioural and healthcare decisions. Health literacy programmes should also be included in school and university curricula,” she adds.

“There should be outreach to local communities, and community and health care workers should communicate clearly and in a culturally relevant context. This will ensure that individuals are well informed, and that future pandemics do not keep them from accessing basic health services.

Such programmes require funding which – if placed in the hands of ethical, credible, and well-informed individuals and organisations – should enable sustainable TB healthcare,” concludes Dr Williams.

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NWU's Open Educational Resource (OER) Fellowship 2021

Dr Aurelia Alvina Williams was awarded the NWU’s OER Fellowship. The fellowship was announced 31 May 2021 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kqi5pVhSo8

Her team includes: Chandré Liebenberg, Mario Chauque and Byron Bunt. The fellowship is to promote the creation and use of original open educational resources. The fellowship runs for 18 months, involves a financial grant, R40 000 for the development of these resources and R7 000 for online conference attendance and presentations. Fellows will have the opportunity to attend several workshops by experts on open educational resources and open pedagogy and will receive mentoring from experts. The resources created will be shared online through an open licence when the programme ends. Aurelia and team will develop an OER educating individuals on some of the basics regarding infectious diseases. The process, research, and development of the OER will be written up in a book chapter for publication 2022/2023.


Fellow of Department of Higher Education and Training's Future Professors Programme 2021

Dr Aurelia Alvina Williams, Senior Lecturer at the Biochemistry Department of the North-West University, Potchefstroom Campus, is among 29 South African academics who have been selected to participate in the Future Professors Programme (FPP) Phase 2 Cohort 1, funded by the Department of Higher Education Training (DHET). This competitive and prestigious programme of DHET is a national, collaborative initiative, aimed at developing the academic, leadership, research, teaching and learning, and community engagement skills of future South African professoriate. Universities are invited to nominate five eligible scholars for selection to the two-year fellowship. A total of a hundred and fourteen (114) applications were received from twenty-six (26) universities. Twenty-nine applicants were selected of which Dr Aurelia Alvina Williams was one of the successful candidates. The programme intends to support participants and provide them with resources needed to navigate the expectations and requirements of the professoriate.


NWU researcher now member of African Academy of Sciences

A senior lecturer in the research focus area Human Metabolomics at the North-West University (NWU) was selected as an affiliate member of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) for the next five years.

Dr Rencia van der Sluis was selected from among young, promising African scientists who have demonstrated prowess in the development and application of science in Africa.

The process to identify AAS affiliates is a highly competitive one, with 40 candidates selected from 220 applications for the sixth cohort of AAS affiliates. There are currently 87 affiliates from 16 African countries across all disciplines.

Read more here.


NWU research group contributes to international bird study

The North-West University’s (NWU’s) research on the genetic data of the nine lovebird species (genus Agapronis) that are native to Africa and Madagascar has been included in a comprehensive international bird study. 

This research has also led to a patent and the possible commercialisation of a genomic test developed by the NWU that will be of great value to parrot breeders and conservationists.

The Bird 10 000 (B10K) consortium’s paper that appears in the journal Nature: Dense sampling of bird diversity increases power of comparative genomics, by Feng, Stiller, Deng, Armstrong et al., was released on 11 November and includes contributions of more than 150 researchers from 125 institutions in 24 countries on various bird species. 

The NWU’s contribution on the genomics of lovebirds is based on the research of Dr Henriëtte van der Zwan.

Read more here | Lees meer hier


NWU heads SA core team in fight against neuromuscular diseases

The social and economic impact of neuromuscular diseases (NMDs) is staggering. These diseases, which include motor neuron disease and muscular dystrophies, can cause premature death or lifelong disability and are believed to affect one in every 400 people – meaning about 20 million children and adults across the globe.

There is hope on the international front, however. Precise genetic diagnoses, gene discoveries and new therapies are having a positive impact on patient care and well-being in developed countries.

This is not yet the case in developing countries with under-studied populations such as South Africa, where more research is desperately needed to develop effective genetic diagnoses and treatments for rare inherited disorders such as NMDs.

This is where the North-West University (NWU) is playing an important role, both as partner in an international collaborative study and as coordinator of the core South African team that will investigate NMD in the region.

NMD researchers from six countries (the UK, South Africa, Brazil, Turkey, India and Zambia) have come together to form the International Centre for Genomic Medicine in Neuromuscular Disorders* (ICGMND), which is funded mainly by the UK’s Medical Research Council. Officially launched in 2019, the centre is led by the University College London (UCL) and aims to make significant inroads into NMD research, especially in developing countries.

Collaboration bolsters local research

Prof Francois van der Westhuizen, deputy director of the School of Physical and Chemical Sciences at the NWU, coordinates the South African effort. The core team consists of researchers and clinicians from the NWU, Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria.

As part of this international collaboration, and making use of local networks, these experts will boost national research and diagnostic capacities. Two key objectives are to recruit patients with NMDs in the South African population and to perform extensive clinical and genetic analyses to identify the mutations that cause these diseases.

Another important objective of the collaboration is to train a new generation of researchers and clinical academics, which is also an opportunity to address equity and transformation in this area of local science.

Local experts, academics and students will work together, liaise, have access to international specialists and research and make contributions as part of the international team.

Study addresses local challenges

Prof Van der Westhuizen says the capacity to clinically diagnose the various forms of NMDs in the general South African population is currently limited to a few centres.

“This is why we want to recruit diverse groups of children and adults with NMDs and analyse the information to find known disease variants and genes and identify new ones. Novel disease variants have already been identified in our population groups.”

He says the study will primarily increase the number of local patients from all population groups who have a precise genetic diagnosis, which will improve patient care. Participation in the ICGNMD will also increase knowledge about the comparative genetic architecture of NMDs across four continents, while providing opportunities to be part of future therapeutic developments.

Garnering resources for international impact

“Through the study we will develop cloud-based capturing systems for clinical and genetic data and bioinformatics support to discover new disease genes, and increase the number of patients on the database with a precise diagnosis.”

Francois says that through the study, gene discoveries will provide an unprecedented scientific opportunity to use new advances in bioinformatics and disease modelling to gain a deep understanding of how these diseases function, progress and respond to therapy.

“This global initiative has the potential to be a ground-breaking study. Past experience has shown us that a coordinated effort is much more effective and likely to succeed than isolated efforts.”

He says by working together, the group hopes to make a lasting impact on the more effective genetic diagnosis of inherited disorders in developing countries and ultimately on the lives of patients suffering from these diseases.

*The ICGMND is headed by Prof Michael Hanna, director of the Queen Square institute of Neurology of the University College London.

He led the establishment of the ICGMND and was at the helm of this strategic partnership with Newcastle University and Cambridge University, together with experts across five continents. The partnership includes funding and the inclusion of resources and staff from centres in Brazil, India, South Africa, Turkey and Zambia. The collaboration is initially planned for a five-year period.

Prof Francois van der Westhuizen coordinates the South African core team taking part in the international collaborative study.