The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has announced that it will expand South Africa’s existing demographic studies to create a new project that will track the health, income and educational attainment of 500,000 citizens.

The programme was launched on 4 October 2016 by Science Minister Naledi Pandor at a conference to plan out South Africa’s first road map for national research infrastructures.

The department intends for the survey to run for decades, following people from birth to end-of-life and monitoring inter-generational trends.

Researchers hope that the data collected from the study will help them to track efforts to curb major health problems such as HIV and TB, and to monitor emerging lifestyle-related threats such as cancer and diabetes.

 The DST estimates that R264 million will be invested into the study over the next five years. Funding has been secured for the first three years of the study; though beyond this, funding will need to be allocated for in future government budgets to ensure that the study remains sustainable in the long-term.

Long-term demographic studies have typically played an important part in charting disease patterns. Though, according to President of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), Prof Glenda Gray, in Africa these studies have been abandoned in favour of focusing on more immediate heath emergencies such as Ebola and HIV.

“You never get your head above water to plan for the future,” says Gray, adding that she hopes that the new study will change this situation.

South Africa currently has three demographic surveillance projects that have been running since the mid-to-late 1990s, based in Mpumalanga, Limpopo in the northeast, and KwaZulu-Natal on the east coast. However, as Deputy Director of the African Health Research Institute, Kobus Herbst, points out, the long term sustainability of these studies remains an on-going concern as they are funded by non-governmental donors. The government’s investment in this new study is therefore particularly welcome, Herbst says.

However, all three current projects only monitor rural areas, and therefore only provide a limited view of national population and health trends. The new expanded demographic project is intended to help solve this problem, with three of four planned network surveillance nodes based in South Africa’s largest cities: Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. The intention is to help uncover emerging patterns of disease linked with modern city life, driven by factors such as pollution, work-related stress and dietary changes.

The three existing South African demographic projects currently monitor approximately 250,000 people, although each collects different types of data that cannot currently be integrated.

The new, expanded project is intended to link these older projects together over the course of the first three years, with the survey in Limpopo being expanded.

At this stage, the project is intended to be monitoring a total of 300,000 people, Herbst says, with an eventual target of 500,000 people after five years.

Government funding for the project will cover full health and socio-demographic surveys, as well as fund linkages to national health records and yearly HIV testing, Herbst says. For further testing, such as DNA sequencing, funding will need to be sought from external donors.

Dean of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, Linda Fried, believes that this survey project will not only help South Africa to develop its life sciences research industry, but also attract future international investment.

The government road map also includes plans for a nuclear-medicine research facility dedicated to drug development and clinical research, a solar-research facility to demonstrate photovoltaic technologies, and a new hub to coordinate efforts to protect the country’s natural-history collections.

“We build big scientific infrastructure to attract international researchers to our country,” concluded Pandor.

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