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Celebrating 70 years of global health research in The Gambia

A symposium last month, to mark the 70th anniversary of MRC Unit The Gambia, revealed how much progress has been made in global health – and how much remains to be done. Pauline Mullin, the MRC’s Partnership Communications Manager for the unit, was there to find out.

Delegates at MRC Unit The Gambia 70th Anniversary Symposium

Professor Umberto D’Alessandro, MRC Unit The Gambia Director, with delegates at the 70th Anniversary Symposium

Early in the 20th Century, the world’s deadliest and most prolific killer was identified – the mosquito responsible for spreading malaria, Anopheles gambiae. Almost half a century later, in the country that gave this killer its name, work began on a research unit near The Gambia’s Atlantic coast. And not without just cause; at the time, malaria was rife and child mortality rates were almost 42% – 417 deaths in every 1,000 births.

Fast forward 70 years and the situation has changed beyond recognition: the unit has become an internationally recognised and world-renowned centre of excellence in global health research. Not only are malaria rates significantly lower than in 1947, child mortality has plummeted by 90%, to 48 deaths per 1,000 births. Speaking at the symposium Professor Joy Lawn, Director of MARCH Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), praised the unit’s achievement: “In preventing child malaria deaths, MRC Unit The Gambia has probably contributed more than any other institution in the world.”

More work to be done

But this wasn’t an exercise in ‘Haven’t we done well?’. Speakers and delegates alike recognised how much is still to be done and shared their insights and ideas on issues yet to be tackled. Professor Lawn impressed on early career researchers the need for new avenues of research with a sobering statistic: “Soon the number of babies dying in the womb as stillbirths due to malaria will be more than the number of under five deaths due to malaria. Yet stillbirths are often uncounted in research.”

Time and again over the course of the event two groups were recognised for their invaluable contributions to the unit’s research. Professor Sir Brian Greenwood, LSHTM and former director of the unit, spoke for many delegates when he observed: “The support of the people of The Gambia has been remarkable and none of the achievements of the last 70 years would have been possible without them.” Unit Director Professor Umberto d’Alessandro added: “No one can deny what has been achieved, in particular new knowledge and new tools to combat disease, but this wouldn’t have been possible without the strong support and partnership of The Gambian Government.”

A reputation for excellence

As well as scientific achievements, the symposium revealed the ingenuity and humour of the many researchers who have helped build the unit’s reputation for excellence over the past 70 years. Among excellent sessions on disease control and elimination, vaccines and immunity, and nutrition – the unit’s three research themes – delegates heard tales of an ill-fated mosquito deterrent known affectionately as ‘The Great Wall of Gillies’, a 1.5m high fence designed by Professor Gillies to stop mosquitoes which fly about 1m above the ground (needless to say the mosquitoes just flew over the top). Also of engineers from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) now turning their attention to mosquito-proof doors for Gambian homes. Who knew? Certainly not me.

Posters on display at the symposium

Posters on display at the symposium

Professor Paul Moss, Chair of the MRC’s Infections and Immunity Board, expressed the mood well when he summed up the symposium: “I’ve been immensely impressed by the quality of the research, but it’s the impact of that research that’s been outstanding and makes this simply one of the best research units around. There’s still a lot of work to do, on infections, non-communicable diseases, training and capacity building, and climate change. With its strong leadership, clear themes and high quality science, it’s clear to me that MRC Unit The Gambia will lead the way.”

And so the work continues to solve the problem not only of malaria, but of the infections and other diseases which continue to blight lives both in developing countries and around the world.

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