By Prof. Dr. Bruno Gryseels, Director
As indicated by the Chair, 2014 has been a challenging year in terms of governance. It will not surprise the reader that these processes have demanded considerable time and energy from the management. Yet, these investments were essential to safeguard the brain, heart and soul of ITM for the future.
While the relevance of global health remains undisputed, it will and should not be an alibi to continue the old ways of North-South collaboration. A large part of the “official” developing countries, and an even larger part in terms of population, have become competitive rather than aid-dependent. As our partner and good friend Dissou Affolabi from Benin reminds us in the award-winning documentary Switching the Poles, “L’IMT c’est l’Institut de Médecine Tropicale; mais les tropiques, c’est chez nous”. Development cooperation is (or should be) by definition finite, and particularly scientific capacity and ownership in many tropical countries has vastly increased over the past decades (and we are pleased and proud to have contributed). What, then, is the future role of the dozen or so “tropical institutes” in Europe that have been created between 1900 and 1910? Not long after a decade of centennial celebrations, several jubilees have faded away, were unrecognisably absorbed in larger entities, or have simply been closed down. Mostly, the decline of aid budgets, or rather their shift to the South, explains part of their demise.
The answer to the question is straightforward. While we must respond to the needs of our partners in the South, our added value (also for them) will be measured in terms of excellence. In addition, in our global village, tropical medicine is becoming essential to western needs in fields as infectious diseases, travel or occupational health and climate change. Academic excellence and niche specificity are main keys to our future, and also to our societal relevance. We must learn to wean from development money before it is cut off, and become ever more competitive in terms of science and innovation. The last few years have shown that the name of our strategic reform plan to that end, ITM2020+, was if anything optimistic: its premises are happening right now.
The governance changes of 2014 were vital, but much more important were the achievements of our students, scientists and scholars that proved us right. In one of our traditional strongholds, sleeping sickness, we have started with our Congolese scientific partners and the national control programme, by far the largest in the world, and with the help or collaboration of the Belgian Ministry of Development Cooperation, WHO, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, FIND, DNDi and Cargill Foundation, an intensified effort to scale up the fight against this dreadful but fascinating disease through technological and operational innovation. With a generous grant of the Baillet Inbev-Latour foundation, we have initiated three new research professorships that should become the core of an ambitious and interdisciplinary programme on bacterial blood infections and antibiotic resistance in the tropics, a field which is of tremendous global importance. In the dramatic Ebola outbreak in West Africa, we were at the forefront of the scientific emergency response and lead a prestigious consortium into a ground-breaking, but extremely challenging clinical trial of convalescent plasma, with support of the European Union, the Flemish Ministry of Science, and the WHO. Within Belgium, one of our staff members was appointed national Ebola coordinator and we played a key role in the national preparedness, including the set-up of new diagnostic facilities. In the field of tuberculosis, we started a large and crucial trial of shortened rifampicine-based drug regimens together with the Damian Foundation and the Bangladeshi Ministry of Health. In partnership with 24 partner institutes in Africa, Asia and Latin America, we started a new and possibly last-of-its kind three-year phase of our capacity strengthening programme “Switching the Poles”, funded by the Belgian Ministry of Development Cooperation at an annual tune of € 15 million. In our teaching programme, we were proud to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our Master of Public Health course, which has become a world-wide reference for primary health care and integrated diseases control. One of the main measures of our impact over the past decades is most certainly the thousands of alumni that have become part of the Antwerp school of thought, many of which are now at influential positions in national ministries and international agencies. We do not rest, however, and were as much pleased with the first in-house graduation of an MPH in International Health, an innovative and flexible programme that meets the demands and expectations of a new generation of scientists and experts.
Other colleagues will forgive me that I can only quote a few examples, but similar stories on health systems research, Buruli ulcer, malaria, leishmaniasis, helminths, dengue, nodding disease, HIV/Sexually Transmitted Diseases and others can be read elsewhere in this report. Eight new projects were funded by the Flemish Ministry of Sciences and Innovation, recognising the increasing recognition and competiveness of our research in the Flemish science landscape.
We have gone through great debates and some difficult times the past few years, but these are coming now into full fruition. My admiration, pride and gratefulness for the way ITM staff takes on the new challenges are beyond words.