At a tender age, my incontrovertible love for mathematics and science compounded by a poor state of health system in Senegal drove my pursuit and ambition to become a scientist. My childhood dream to become a person of significance in future was strong that it propelled me to become health professional to help combat seismic health problems that had threatened to cripple my community.
When the first case of HIV/AIDS case was diagnosed in the country in 1986, I was in medical school studying pharmaceutical biology. This fact, that the dreaded disease had creeped into Senegal, sent shock waves across the population and became a big concern in the country’s medical cycles. As a young medical trainee, my interest was immediately drawn into understanding the virus and helping save the community from infection.
The government’s response following the advent of the virus was immediate. A national AIDS program was set up, and steps taken to prevent any exposure with the virus. The country’s sustained intervention to manage the virus has worked remarkably well. Senegal’s HIV prevalence is below 1%, placing the country among countries with the lowest HIV prevalence levels in the sub-Saharan Africa.
Interestingly, molecular biology is playing a key role in the detection and efficacy of HIV prevention in Senegal. The centrifugal force behind this success are molecular techniques that have proven a game changer in HIV treatment. One of such cutting-edge tools is serological point-of-care (POC) diagnostic, a rapid clinical microbiology testing of HIV introduced more than 25 years ago. These techniques, including POC, accurately quantify HIV viral load in a system, and they have, by far, effectively instrumentalized the control of the disease in the country where sophisticated laboratories are hard to come by. Indeed, the importance of molecular biology in the detection cannot be overstated; it is the only realm that makes it possible for a child born of an HIV positive mother to be diagnosed.
But why are these molecular applications working very well in Senegal? First, the government has prioritized investment in research and training into this field as it targets to produce sufficient resources and personnel that can wholesomely and effectively bring this pandemic down to its knees. Most students graduating in molecular medicine are enrolled into HIV/AIDS intervention programs. Personally, I have spearheaded several interventions in this area among them documentation of HIV genetic diversity in the country. We have also demonstrated the feasibility of management and the efficacy of antiretroviral therapy (ART) treatment through a national program. The rollout of the ART program has provided prevention and care not only in Senegal but across most parts of the West African region (Mali, Guinea, Mauritania).
Secondly, key in Senegal’s low HIV prevalence is its holistic approach in wrestling the spread of the virus. Scientists and other stakeholders are working together in sensitizing and raising awareness about the disease. All stakeholders, including community members, take part in decision making regarding any measure or method deemed important in the fight against the pandemic.
Although Senegal and other African countries have made great advancements in this fight, a number of hurdles continue to stifle quick realization of a continent free of HIV pandemic. Synergy among African States is not optimum as far as the war against the disease is concerned. Undoubtedly, technical capacity varies among different countries and this presents a need to network and strengthen this capacity from within the continent. Health professionals across the region must team up and work together in addressing this health menace. One of the most attractive collaborative approaches is a twinning program in which medical research institutions from two different countries can mutually exchange medical staff, expertise and experiences in order to strengthen HIV/AIDS intervention systems between the countries. This is a cost-effective approach that can beef up sub-Saharan Africa’s limited medical resources.
Another bottleneck in the battle against HIV is the lack of a clear framework for translating medical research results into practice. Many reputable medical studies on HIV intervention approaches in Africa have been published, yet their findings and recommendations have either been implemented partially or never implemented at all. Partly to blame for this is the scientific community. Scientists should rise beyond journal publications and start directly engaging politicians and community leaders about their findings.
I believe that if Senegal’s HIV intervention model can be replicated across Africa, HIV/AIDS pandemic will be won sooner than anticipated.
Toure Kane is a Professor of Microbiology at Cheikh Anta Diop University (UCAD), Senegal. She is also the Head of the Bacteriology-Virology at Dalal Jamm Hospital in Dakar and formal Chief of Molecular Biology Unit in the National Reference Center for HIV and STD Laboratory, Senegal. She adds up as the Scientific Director of the Health Research, Epidemiological Surveillance and Training Institute (namely IRESSEF).