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Researchers Want Disease Control in Hands of African Communities

  • Ricci Shryock

New research shows a community-controlled approach to fighting illness has doubled the malaria coverage for children in some African villages during the past three years. Ricci Shryock has more from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

Nigerian Dr. Oladele Akogun says he originally had doubts about the community program, which gives residents medical supplies and allows community members to decide who will dispense those supplies and the best ways to approach diagnosis and treatment.

"I was surprised the communities could do anything," he said. "As a natural scientist, I just thought you needed science to do these things."

Dr. Akogun is Nigeria's Primary Investigator for The Special Program for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases. The program is sponsored by international organizations such as the World Bank and the World Health Organization.

At this week's International Conference on Primary Health Care Systems in Africa, held in Burkina Faso, researchers hope to convince policymakers of the effectiveness of their method so they can expand the approach across the continent.

"This is the realization that a community can outpace the achievements of a health facility located amongst, say 50 villages," said Dr. Akogun.

"With this approach, the local population nominated people from within the community to distribute donated drugs such as Coartem. Both Akogun and Geneva-based research coordinator Dr. Hans Remme say the key factor was community empowerment, and the duty and responsibility that those who were nominated felt," he added.

The project's communications manager Jamie Guth remembers one case she saw in Nigeria.

"I talked to a young man who had a wife and a baby, and he was able to treat not only his own son, who got malaria, but also other community members," she said.

Though Dr. Remme maintains the outlook is good for this type of treatment, he adds that the countries where this method worked are more developed than other some other African countries, and he hopes the approach will work in less stable areas, too.

"Within Africa, these are relatively well developed health systems, so to what extent this can be translated into areas where the health systems are much, much weaker, like in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in some parts of it, that is still a question, so we have to be careful," said Dr. Remme.

By releasing the findings at this week's conference, Dr. Remme says they hope to reach policymakers throughout Africa. More than 500 people from the health and international community are in Burkina Faso this week to participate in the WHO-sponsored conference.

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