Harvard Public Health NOW

August 14, 2009

Possible Opportunities for Research Collaborations in Africa Explored at HSPH Event

The long-running and landmark Nurses' Health Study has revealed a plethora of information about the links between diet, exercise, and health in women. Now, HSPH faculty, working with officials in several countries, are hoping to pattern a possible new study in sub-Saharan Africa after the Nurses' Health Study that would follow study participants over a 10-year period, focusing on chronic illnesses, women's health, and environmental health.

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From l to r, HSPH chair Doug Dockery, guide Derek Grootboom, and HSPH chair Hans-Olov Adami on Robben Island in South Africa.

While the study is still in the discussion stage, HSPH members were invited recently to attend a seminar in Snyder Auditorium to hear more about the aims of the African Cohort Initiative.

"Until about 15 months ago, we were profoundly uncertain whether this was at all feasible," said Hans-Olov Adami, chair of the HSPH Department of Epidemiology, who is heading the effort along with Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition, and Douglas Dockery, chair of the Department of Environmental Health.

After a series of trips to Africa and meetings with government and health officials in the countries involved, "we are now reasonably confident that this can be done, provided that we have sufficient resources," Adami said.

Potential study partners have been identified in Tanzania, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda. The hope is to begin enrolling study participants within one to two years.

The disease burden in Africa is projected to reach the point where eventually non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, will outstrip infectious diseases. Communicable diseases are being more widely prevented and treated than in the past, allowing people to live longer, which in turn places them at greater risk of developing chronic illnesses, explained Shona Dalal, a research associate in the Department of Epidemiology.    

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From l to r, HSPH members Michelle Coleman, Michelle Holmes, David Havelick, and Shona Dalal in Rufiji, Tanzania.

Another is that economic growth has caused more Africans to lead sedentary lives and to change their diets, she noted.
The African Cohort Initiative would provide more accurate information about the burden of non-communicable diseases in Africa, including data on risk factors, prevention, and treatment, Dalal said.

"There are really no studies of this scale and scope anywhere on that entire continent," she added.

The data would be used to design local prevention and treatment programs, she said. In some countries, the study participants will be doctors and nurses, while in others the studies would focus on residents of certain geographical areas. Follow-up would be done by mail, email, and cell phone.

Interested HSPH faculty or students are invited to contact David Havelick (dhavelic@hsph.harvard.edu) to be added to the working group. More information also is available at http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/departments/epidemiology/department-newsletter-epitome/faculty-retreat/index.html.

-- Michael Lasalandra. Photos by David Havelick and Juan-Jose Beunza