By Prof. Dr. Marleen Boelaert* and Prof. Dr. Anne Buvé**
The research portfolio of the Department of Public Health ranges from health policy analysis and health systems research to research on the epidemiology and control of health problems that mainly affect populations in low- and middle-income countries. These research lines mobilise inputs from different disciplines.
The department organised the 2014 ITM Colloquium “The Human Factor” which examined the role of the social sciences in global health research. This event was a success and a clear token of our commitment to inter- and transdisciplinary research.
In 2014, a tenure track professor was appointed in the newly formed Unit of Medical Anthropology. His unit will focus on sociocultural factors related to infectious disease transmission, community perceptions on health and illness, and their impact on the effectiveness of prevention, control and elimination strategies. The unit’s specific areas of interest are: the use of medicines and antibiotic resistance, reproductive health, Ebola and malaria. The unit recently won two competitive grants: one to conduct mixed methods research on Nodding Syndrome, a devastating neurological condition of unknown aetiology that occurs in isolated populations in Sub-Saharan Africa; and the other, a multidisciplinary study in collaboration with the Department of Biomedical Sciences, to both identify malaria hotspots and provide insights on how to eliminate them.
The department’s research group on epidemiology and control of tropical diseases set up DENTARGET, a Latin American multidisciplinary research network that is developing a methodology for identifying areas at elevated risk for dengue transmission. Once this has been developed, targeted dengue vector control strategies can be tested. The group continues to work on the control of leishmaniasis, sleeping sickness and neglected tropical diseases, focusing on evaluating better tools for diagnosis as we ultimately work towards eliminating these diseases. In 2014, the group published a Cochrane Review on rapid diagnostics for visceral leishmaniasis. Two large grants were obtained to support work on improved and integrated sleeping sickness control in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The group coordinates a large consortium on integrated approach to diagnosis for neglected infectious diseases (NIDIAG) funded by the European Commission’s (EC) 7th Framework Programme . In 2014, the EC accepted to fund the EUROLEISH-NET consortium under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie ITN program. EUROLEISH-NET is a doctoral programme conceived to support 15 students in their research career in the field of leishmaniasis.
The Public Health Department’s group on HIV and sexual health is currently focusing its research on interventions to prevent the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). The group studies the vaginal microbiome in relation to vulnerability to HIV and STIs and conducts research in close collaboration with the STI Reference Laboratory of ITM’s Department of Clinical Sciences. In 2014, the researchers successfully completed a population-based study on HIV among Sub-Saharan African migrants in Antwerp with the active participation of the African community. Non-communicable diseases and woman and child health are mainly addressed through the lens of health systems research.
The Unit of Health Services Organisation obtained a European Union Horizon 2020 grant for research on self-management of patients with diabetes in Uganda, South Africa and Sweden (Smart2D). The unit uses “realist evaluation”, which focuses on how outcomes were caused and the influence of context, as one of the research methodologies for addressing complex health issues and was co-organiser of the 1st International Conference on Realist Approaches to Evaluation and Synthesis in Liverpool.
Our department is committed to reducing inequalities in health and health care, issues that are explicitly addressed by the Health Systems Management Group and the International Health Policy Group.
Our Unit of Equity and Health (formerly Unit of Health Financing) was part of a consortium funded by the EC that conducted research in Ghana, India and Senegal, on the extent, nature and mechanisms underlying the exclusion of people from social health protection arrangements, to which they are entitled. This culminated in a 2-day international conference at ITM in October 2014.
A staff member of the International Health Policy Group participated in the Lancet – University of Oslo Commission on Global Governance for Health, which released a report on “The political origins of health inequity: prospects for change”.
The EC funded Go4Health research project of the International Health Policy Group focused on developing global health goals and governance standards for post-2015 and remained highly active in terms of research, publications and conference participation. The group is also very active in knowledge management through the International Health Policies (IHP) Network and through two IHP newsletters (in French and English).
In 2014, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Master (Msc) in Public Health. This event, as well as a self-assessment exercise in preparation for an external review in 2015, provided us with the opportunity to reflect on the past and the future of this course. The ultimate goal of this reflective exercise is to adapt our teaching programme to meet the challenges of the coming decade.
*Head of Department of Public Health
**Acting Head of Department of Public Health (Augustus – December 2014)