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Why ICART, a New Research Center in the D.R.Congo, is Needed

An International Center for Advanced Research and Training (ICART) has been launched in Panzi, Bukavu, in the South-Kivu Province of the DR Congo. This province has suffered many wars over decades and is trying to recover. ICART is organizing its first symposium. How is scientific research of help for the recovery?

Good research usually requires well-trained scientists, infrastructure and equipment. Africa is the continent least resourced in these elements. Yet there are many issues on the continent that need the kind of solutions that come from research. Poverty and lack of research are related, one favoring the other, but it is possible to break this vicious circle. First, there are now many well-trained Africans, living either on the continent or in the diaspora, who can sustain some level of research work. Secondly, some types of research do not necessarily require great capital investment. Thirdly, international collaborations offer access to mutually beneficial shared expertise and resources. Finally, some problems in Africa can best be addressed by the unique experience of the African researchers themselves. Such problems are illustrated by the current epidemics of hemorrhagic fever or the persistent high prevalence of genital fistulae or child malnutrition.

On the scientific research front Africa displays a large diversity. There are continental superpowers such as South Africa and Egypt, which by themselves account for nearly 50% of all research output of the continent. On the other hand, there are countries, especially war-torn nations such as the DR Congo, where research activity is very low or has been declining for decades. It is a big challenge in the latter countries to embark in viable research activities. In the case of the Eastern part of the DR Congo, the war situation, administrative mismanagement and corruption have led to a disintegration of nearly all systems. Recently, increased political stability has seen efforts to help hasten the recovery from the destructions of war. In this respect, the establishment of institutions such as the Panzi Hospital or of an international research center such as ICART (International Center for Advanced Research and Training) should serve as powerful instruments to help in the recovery.

Panzi Hospital, founded in 1999, has gained international fame for the care of women with severe gynecological problems and for survivors of sexual violence. Panzi Foundation DRC was established in 2008 for the administration and management of the various projects addressing needs that went beyond direct clinical care. It soon became obvious that research capacity needed to be developed in order to improve the care and to direct policy. The Foundation decided to partner with the local University, the Université Evangélique en Afrique (UEA; founded in 1991) in order to establish ICART, to train local project leaders and researchers on the collection and use of data for evidenced-based decision making and for improved health care.

Current international partners of ICART are the University of Michigan (which provided a 1-year grant to help establish the Center), and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (which recently provided a 3-year grant for research on empowering women). Local collaboration also exists within Panzi as well as with the Université Catholique de Bukavu, whose Ethics Review Board examines research projects for ICART.

Current research interests focus on women’s and children’s health, but also on other issues. Beside the above-mentioned major project on gender-based violence and women’s empowerment, other women’s and children’s health projects include: 1) a fistula survey, with the aim to develop a database from which information can be derived to define factors that determine the outcome post-surgery; 2) a cervical cancer screening project; 3) a survey of genital colonization with Streptococcus B and its impact on neonatal health.

Additional projects are: 4) a blood safety survey, to determine the risk of transmission of diseases such as malaria, hepatitis B and C, HIV and syphilis through transfusion; 5) a malnutrition project to assess the level of malnutrition in the region and its relation with cultural and war-related issues. It is a challenge for ICART to find funding for many of these projects.

Training is also on the agenda and has to date ranged from ethical issues (i.e. CITI training), to writing scientific papers, to data analysis and presentation, etc. Given the mental problems associated with sexual violence, training in mental health care is also planned.

To promote scientific collaboration, ICART will also organize regular meetings during which local scientists can share information among themselves as well as with their regional and international colleagues. It is from this perspective that ICART is organizing its first symposium (from 21 to 23 September 2014; in Panzi Bukavu, DR Congo). Coming from diverse horizons and domains, for three days participants will follow around ten plenary sessions addressing global health and food security by distinguished researchers.

More than 70 abstracts were accepted for oral presentations. This exercise will contribute enormously to strengthening skills in research methodology, scientific presentation and peer debate.

ICART is open to collaboration and partnerships with individuals and organizations that are interested in improving research capacity and other health related projects in low-and-middle income countries. For example, Evidence Aid provides advice on how to conduct Randomized Control Trials and systematic reviews in poor resource countries. ICART would like to see more research done by local researchers who are ready to collaborate with international researchers to address local problems.

Kanigula Mubagwa is a Professor of Physiology at the University of Leuven, Belgium. He is Congolese and serves as Director of ICART.

Jules Bashi is a public health and infectious disease specialist. He is Coordinator of ICART Symposium.

Bonnix Kayabu is a researcher at the Centre for Global Health, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and Evidence Aid coordinator. He is Congolese and supports ICART activities.

PLOS sponsored part of the registration costs at this meeting.

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