UKZN Alumna Passes on Following COVID-19 Related Complications

UKZN Alumna Passes on Following COVID-19 Related Complications
The late Professor Gita Ramjee, UKZN alumna and respected HIV researcher.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal joined the research fraternity and fellow South Africans in mourning the loss of UKZN world-renowned HIV scientist and researcher, Professor Gita Ramjee.

Ramjee - a UKZN alumna - served as Director of the HIV Prevention Unit of the South African Medical Research Council (MRC). She passed away in hospital following health complications related to COVID-19. She had recently returned to South Africa following a trip to the United Kingdom.

Ramjee, who is acknowledged for her ground-breaking research and development in the field of HIV prevention, recently received global recognition for her tireless efforts and lifetime of contribution relating to HIV prevention amongst women. She was awarded the “Outstanding Female Scientist” Award by the European Development Clinical Trials Partnerships (EDCTP).

According to the Medical Research Council (MRC), Ramjee’s KZN-based team hosts five of 20 HIV Vaccine Trial Network sites across the country as a part of a global scientific journey to find an effective HIV vaccine. Her team is also testing a ‘novel long acting injectable for the prevention of HIV’ in three communities across the greater Durban area.

A highly respected scholar and esteemed academic, she obtained her Science degree at the University of Sunderland in the United Kingdom and her master’s and PhD degrees through the Department of Paediatrics at UKZN. She was also an Honorary Professor at the University of Tamil Nadu, India, and at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

UKZN’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Nana Poku, paid tribute to ‘a pioneer in the field of HIV prevention among high risk populations.’ Poku said her devotion and contribution to the field of HIV prevention is known globally.

‘On behalf of the University, we are saddened by the tragic loss of such a greatly respected scholar and esteemed academic. May her soul rest in peace and may her loved ones find healing during this difficult time,’ he said.

Former MRC President, Dr Anthony Mbewu, said: ‘Like many throughout the country, we are shocked and devastated to hear of the tragic passing of Gita. She died of a terrible virus that has caused misery and grief around the world; yet she herself fought tirelessly against another virus (HIV) that has killed millions in South Africa and overseas.’

Social media was flooded with messages of condolences as South Africans came to terms with losing a researcher and humanitarian of her calibre.

Her sister, Ms Asmita Parashar tweeted: ‘The most heartbreaking thing when a friend or relative is hospitalised with #COVID-19, is that they are completely alone till the end. No one to visit, take care, give them a hug or hold their hand in their hour of need. That is what is most tragic. It’s the cruelest disease… I am absolutely and completely heartbroken.’

‘Absolutely overwhelmed with the beautiful messages of love and support which continue to pour in from around world for my sister, Prof Gita Ramjee. Knowing how much she was loved and admired has been a real comfort at this very difficult time. Thank you!! #GitaRamjee,’ said Parashar.

The Aurum Institute, a leading African health impact organisation, said it was deeply saddened by the death of its Chief Scientific Officer who was ‘world renowned for her tireless work to find HIV prevention solutions for women.’ Aurum’s Group CEO Gavin Churchyard, described her as ‘a bold and compassionate leader in the response to HIV.’

Former SA Public Protector, Professor Thuli Madonsela said: ‘What a loss at a time like this. Heartfelt condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Prof Gita Ramjee who dedicated her life to turning the tide against HIV and AIDS. Now #Corona #COVID19 has taken her away… RIP Gita Ramjee.’

UKZN alumnus and Mandela Rhodes scholar, Mr Suntosh Pillay, tweeted: ‘COVID-19 has robbed South Africa of a towering HIV researcher and globally renowned scholar.’

The University mourns the loss of one of its own as the country works tirelessly to combat the pandemic currently affecting the world.

Words: Raylene Captain-Hasthibeer

Photograph: Supplied

author : .
author email : .

TB, HIV and COVID-19: Urgent Questions as Three Epidemics Collide

TB, HIV and COVID-19: Urgent Questions as Three Epidemics Collide
In South Africa, the novel coronavirus is likely to be of particular concern for communities with high rates of TB and HIV.Emily Wong, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Tuberculosis (TB) and HIV pose a significant burden on South Africa’s health system. There’s a close relationship between the two. About 60% of TB patients are also HIV-positive. The novel coronavirus (Sars-CoV-2) is likely to be of particular concern for communities with high rates of TB and HIV. Sars-CoV-2 and its resulting disease (COVID-19) haven’t been fully researched and understood yet. But speculation based on the behaviour of other viruses and chronic illnesses raises concerns that HIV and TB patients may have a higher risk of developing severe disease. Emily Wong answers some questions.

Are people with TB more susceptible to infection with SARS-COV-2?

SARS-COV-2’s primary target is the lungs where it causes inflammation in the delicate tissues that usually allow oxygen to transfer into blood. In mild cases, COVID-19 can just cause a cough, but in severe cases the lungs can fill with inflammation and fluid making it very difficult for them to provide adequate oxygen to the rest of the body. In people who are otherwise healthy, most cases of COVID-19 are mild or moderate.

At this time, I’m not aware of any data that directly address whether TB makes people more susceptible to COVID-19. But from the Chinese experience, we have seen that people with chronic lung disease are more likely to have increased severity of COVID-19. On that basis, we are concerned that people with undiagnosed active TB, or people currently undergoing treatment for TB, may have increased risk of developing more severe COVID-19 disease if they become infected with SARS-COV-2.

There is also increasing recognition that post-TB chronic lung disease can be an important long-term consequence of TB. We are concerned that this could also affect COVID-19 severity. After TB, people can get bronchiectasis – chronic damage to the airways of the lung. This can predispose them to other lung infections. Another lung condition – chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – can be caused by tobacco use or by the changes left in the lung after TB.

Even though there’s no data about the effect of post-TB lung disease on COVID-19 at this point, we are concerned that people who have had TB in the past – and have been left with some lung damage – may have a more difficult and severe time with COVID-19.

What about people infected with HIV?

There is also very little data to guide us here. But we know that in general HIV infection has profound effects on lung health and immunity. This is why HIV infection increases susceptibility to both Mycobacterium Tuberculosis (Mtb) – the bacterium that causes TB – infection and TB disease. We are therefore concerned that HIV infection may also affect SARS-COV-2 infection and COVID-19 severity.

But most experts think that people who are on antiretroviral therapy and whose viral loads are suppressed will probably have a better time with COVID-19 than people who aren’t. It is very important that people keep taking their HIV medications throughout any disruptions caused by the current COVID-19 epidemic.

What will the impact of the SARS-COV-2 epidemic be on TB and HIV services in South Africa?

This is a major concern. Even countries with better resourced national health systems have rapidly become overwhelmed as the COVID-19 epidemic hits.

South Africa has the world’s largest antiretroviral programme. Huge progress has been made. Even in KwaZulu-Natal, the epicentre of the HIV epidemic in South Africa, new HIV infection rates have been dropping. This is because of tremendous efforts to test people and to put people on antiretroviral treatment in a sustained way. Other factors have included national programmes like voluntary medical male circumcision.

The country has also started to see a decline in TB rates. We think this is related to improvements in the HIV treatment coverage. This is good news. But it’s the result of massive public health programmes that have taken a huge amount of time and effort to set up and optimise. And they’re still challenged by shortages of human and system resources.

We are very concerned about the impact that COVID-19 epidemic could have on HIV and TB services.

Thought is already going into how to try to maintain these critical HIV and TB services. In light of an impending health crisis, attention is on how to maintain sustained access to HIV and TB care. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the South African HIV Clinicians Society are trying to address this. For example, they are urging the health system to make six months of antiretrovirals available to people to save them from having to visit their clinics every month.

Are there extra precautions that individuals with TB and TB/HIV can take?

It’s very important that people ensure a supply of their HIV and TB medications and take them regularly.

At this point all South Africans should be heeding the call made by the President to focus on the basic hygiene interventions such as frequent hand-washing as well as implementing social distancing to the maximum extent. That means avoiding contact with groups of people outside of households, and staying home strictly.

All of these measures are extremely important, whether someone is personally at higher risk of severe infection, or for people who may not personally be at risk of more severe disease but may have a family member who’s older or HIV-positive or a neighbour who falls into any of those categories.

At this point the national recommendations apply to everyone. All South Africans need to take them very, very seriously because millions of people are immuno-supressed due to HIV or have some lung compromise due to prior TB infection.

Will any of the research on vaccines in South Africa be useful in the search for a COVID-19 vaccine?

The fact that South Africa has robust vaccine trial infrastructure for both TB and HIV is undoubtedly to its advantage when it comes to thinking about COVID-19 vaccine development. There are already candidate COVID-19 vaccines in human testing. The company Moderna in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US have started clinical trials of an mRNA vaccine candidate. Other candidates are also under development. When these are ready for larger scale human testing, the global scientific community will almost certainly use existing vaccine trial networks to do this testing. Because of both HIV and TB research efforts to date, South Africa is very well represented.

Words: Emily Wong, Faculty Member: Africa Health Research Institute, University of KwaZulu-Natal

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image: Shutterstock

The Conversation
author : .
author email : .

Leading Change: COVID-19

Leading Change: COVID-19
.Click here for isiZulu version

While the world looks for leadership during the outbreak of COVID-19, South Africans need not look far, as all our political leaders showed up, showed support and rallied behind the very adaptable ANC government. It was heartwarming to see a usually politically divided country united in the face of a deadly virus.

From a leadership perspective there is no set of rules, regulations or guidelines to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. What has worked in one country may not work in another. The world is trying to mobilise and find ways to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, yet uncertainty abounds. South Africa has its own unique challenges, ranging from 7.5 million people infected with HIV, to malnutrition and high levels of poverty.

As citizens of this diverse country, which embraces adversity with vigour, we need to start thinking critically about the situation we face. The decision is ultimately yours; you can succumb to panic or paralysis or we can heed the advice of our competent leaders who have embraced crisis leadership superbly and use this to navigate our own critical “moments of truth” as we face the next chapter of this disaster.

Our Leadership

Our country’s leadership has undoubtedly put people first. While we have yet to see the surge in the virus, projections indicate that every person infected will infect two to three others. 

However, this is not an attempt to unpack the medical aspects of COVID-19, but a way to enlighten you as the educated South African to step up and play your role in curbing the spread of this virus.

This is our attempt to flatten the curve, which will certainly have an impact on the spreading of the virus. The aftermath of a nationwide lockdown could possibly lead to a great depression and will be felt for years to come, but what can we do here and now?

It is now up to us to create a vision of getting to the other side of the crisis. We have been given the tools to overcome this by being constantly informed. We therefore need to start empowering and educating others, so that everyone can play their part.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that these are highly emotional and turbulent times. President Cyril Ramaphosa, and Ministers Dr Zweli Mkhize, Bheki Cele, Fikile Mbalula, Ebrahim Patel and other cabinet ministers have shown mental calm which is needed to stay grounded and for us as a nation to continue moving forward. Their decisive and strong leadership should be resonating amongst us as we move through unchartered territory.

Students should take the lead

University students can play a critical role in spear-heading change during these difficult days and can be part of the greater conversation in leading through turbulent times based on how we tackle COVID-19. Be supportive of the national lockdown by not fighting against it. 

It is your time to lead your families, communities and societies by taking charge of the situation. The key is to listen to our adaptive leaders who have thoroughly and persistently given directives and have been transparent throughout the process.

Put people first, like our President and his cabinet have done. It is important that every person in our country adheres to this.

Here’s how you can assist:

1) Lead by example

Show those around you how to self-isolate. Exhibit excellent hygiene standards and practice physical distancing. Once you start doing it people will follow. Staying at home, avoiding public places and cancelling all social activities is the best defence against the virus. Limiting contact with EVERYONE is vital.

2) Educate people in your community

As educated beings you are gifted with comprehension levels far beyond other people in this country. Use this to find ways to explain the magnitude of the pandemic to others and provide ways to combat the spread. Speak to people on a level that enables them to understand the ramifications of continuing with life as normal.

3) Spread the message to elders in remote communities

While our loved ones are not always close to us we have a responsibility to protect them. Travel has enabled COVID-19 to spread. There is a misconception that elders that do not live in the cities are spared from the virus; the reality is that they are the most vulnerable. Get the message to them somehow; use your initiative to determine a way to educate them on the importance of self-isolating and hygiene.

Promote staying at home to your loved ones.

4) Do not leave your area or the city

A desperate plea from our government is that you stay where you are. This means not visiting any family, friends or loved ones during this time. It will help to control the spread of the virus to the rural areas and to more vulnerable communities. Educate your loved ones about their inaccessibility to healthcare in rural areas and why it is imperative that you stay where you are.

The national lockdown is not a holiday; it is a means to contain the spread of the virus. Create a structured day plan in order to stay and be productive during this time.

5) Stay within your home or dwelling

Physical distancing is a critical part of working toward not spreading this virus. Socialise through phone calls, applications on your cellphone and other social technology. When you do need to go out to get essential goods stay, 2 meters or more away from other customers. Keep shopping and being outdoor to a minimal.

6) Stop stigma and discrimination

Again, as educated beings, it is unfair and unjust to pass judgment on another person suffering with the virus. COVID-19 cannot be a vehicle for racism, bigotry or xenophobia. Instead, educate yourself and those around you about the virus and its origins.

Furthermore, if you discriminate against someone who could have the virus, they may be reluctant to get tested for COVID-19, for fear of being stigmatised or outcast from their community, which could have adverse effects on you and your loved ones. Be kind to all people during this very unstable time.

7) Think of ways to bounce back (use this time to reflect)

As future leaders, use this time to not only minimise the risks, but seek out the upside for yourself, your organisation, community or society. By shifting from a fear-based perspective, to one grounded in the abovementioned core behaviours of crisis leadership, leaders can equip themselves to navigate these “moments of truth” effectively, regardless of when they occur.

Finally, we are individuals and are also part of the collective. Now is the time for all of us to slow the spread of the virus and to flatten the curve in order to avoid the massive, needless suffering of our people, especially the elderly, those that suffer ill-health, are uninsured, poverty stricken, or live from week to week, and people who are alone without any support. Self-isolation and physical distancing is not about you; it is about protecting those who are especially vulnerable.

Come on UKZN. We can do this!

Kriyanka Moodley is a leadership lecturer for the MBA programme at the Graduate School of Business and Leadership at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

author : .
author email : .

Emotional Support During COVID-19 #Lockdown Just a Phone Call Away

Emotional Support During COVID-19 #Lockdown Just a Phone Call Away
UKZN staff have access to 24-hour telephonic counselling as part of the University’s Employee Wellness Programme.

The effects of COVID-19 are far-reaching and this unprecedented global crisis may affect us physically and financially, and can impact our emotional wellbeing.

UKZN’s Employee Wellness Programme for staff members and their immediate families is operational during the national Covid-19 #lockdown period. The service includes 24-hour telephonic counselling with a qualified counsellor; guidance on legal, financial, and family care matters; and trauma and manager support.

UKZN’s Director of Human Resource Development, Mrs Busisiwe Ramabodu said a lockdown can have detrimental effects on our psychological wellbeing as a result of excessive worry and anxiety, loneliness, strained relationships due to being closed up together for an extended period and excessive news watching. ‘Staff members who are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated or need someone to talk to during this very difficult time can call the UKZN wellness toll-free number and speak with trained counsellors,’ she said.

‘As we all bunker down in our homes over the next few weeks, we may experience times of frustration related to COVID-19, or have family, financial or health concerns. I encourage staff members to utilise this service to help minimise stress,’ Ramabodu added.

Staff members are encouraged to continue with healthy habits, ie, exercise indoors and in the garden, follow a balanced diet, play family games, and engage in reading, meditation and mindfulness practice as these are likely to provide another buffer against COVID-19 related stress.

The service is available 24/7/365 to staff and their immediate families living in the same household by dialing 0800-254-255 (toll-free).

Words: Raylene Captain-Hasthibeer

Photograph: Supplied

author : .
author email : .

Education Student Attends Commonwealth Futures Workshop

Education Student Attends Commonwealth Futures Workshop
Education student, Ms Phakamile Mazibuko, attended a Commonwealth Futures Workshop.Click here for isiZulu version

Master’s in Education student, Ms Phakamile Mazibuko, recently attended the Commonwealth Futures Workshop hosted by the Durban University of Technology in collaboration with the Association of Commonwealth Universities, Commonwealth Secretariat and the British Council.

The workshop was held under the theme Re-imagining Peace.

The workshop series is designed to highlight the role of young leaders in promoting social cohesion through cultures of tolerance, ethics, respect and understanding diverse spaces in unique contexts.

The workshop provided a forum for student leaders from across the Commonwealth to explore ways of promoting peace and non-violence in diverse spaces in response to the challenging issues confronting the world such as inequality and gender-based violence. 

Mazibuko, one of UKZN’s top 40 inspiring students, remarked that the workshop taught her about the role of leadership and education in creating non-violent and cohesive societies.

‘Reimagining peace through critical and though-provoking engagements exposed me to socially accepted practices that have been imposed on us, that we have been fearful to challenge,’ she said. ‘Sharing unique experiences with people from different contexts emphasised how important it is to understand cultural diversity through respect, tolerance and equality in our diverse contexts. Higher Education Institutions and leaders have a responsibility to negotiate ways to ensure peaceful and non-violent spaces in universities, residences and communities at large.’

Mazibuko, a summa cum laude graduate, believes workshops of this nature are essential as they enable young leaders to understand differences in terms of culture, gender and power as well as their influences on diverse social contexts. ‘If we critically understand and respect diversity, collaborations can be made possible to devise impactful solutions that are action-oriented and sustainable to address inequality and violence within our communities,’ she added.

Mazibuko plans to engage with the UKZN community to develop practical solutions to promote non-violent spaces on campuses, in communities and beyond. 

Words: Melissa Mungroo

Photograph: Supplied

author : .
author email : .

Data@breakfast Goes Online to Share Info on COVID-19

Data@breakfast Goes Online to Share Info on COVID-19
Data@breakfast moved online in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was a logical step for UKZN Pro Vice-Chancellor for Big Data and Informatics, Professor Francesco Petruccione, to turn to the online world so as to continue with his monthly data@breakfast seminar series during the national COVID-19 lockdown.

With the use of the online “Zoom” webinar tool, some 200 participants – each sitting in the comfort of their own home on Day 1 of South Africa’s national #stayathome – tuned in at 07h30 sharp to listen to a highly topical and lucid presentation by UKZN COVID-19 war room member, Dr Richard Lessells. Lessells’s talk tackled the issue of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and provided both a local and global perspective.

Lessells* – an infectious diseases specialist based at UKZN’s Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) – is currently deployed to the UKZN COVID-19 war room and is supporting the local response to the epidemic.

‘COVID-19 is a remarkable pandemic that is going to change us fundamentally in many ways, including how we work as academics,’ said Lessells. ‘News first came out of a cluster of people with undiagnosed pneumonia in Wuhan, China, on ProMED on 30 December 2019. In just three months we have reached the half a million mark of diagnosed infections worldwide, and the epicentre has shifted from China, to Europe, to the USA. Such a pandemic was something we as epidemiologists were aware could happen at some stage. As countries we were prepared but at different levels. Countries expected to have coped have struggled.’

Lessells provided a clear and cogent overview of the spread of COVID-19 around the world, the trajectory that the disease has followed in different countries, and the positive impact early testing and quarantine have had on the steepness of the infection curve.

‘Widespread testing, including of asymptomatic people, is what has made the difference and led to relatively low mortality in countries such as South Korea,’ he said. 

International statistics presented by Lessells pointed to a higher mortality rate amongst older people. He noted, however, that whilst South Africa’s population pyramid indicates a younger population than a country such as Italy, which theoretically should work in its favour, what is not yet known is the effect that HIV and TB would have on the rate of COVID-19 infections. With South Africa being at the epicentre of the fight against AIDS, Lessells stressed the importance of people establishing their HIV status and taking the necessary medication if COVID-19 is to be tackled comprehensively.

Discussing the transmission dynamics of COVID-19, Lessells said that the R0 (Basic Reproduction Number, viz. how many people on average one person will infect) is estimated at two to three, which makes it significantly more transmissible than flu. Factors that affected the R0 included probability of transmission per contact between infected and susceptible (p), contacts per unit time (c) and duration of infectiousness (d). Global interventions are aimed at reducing this R0.

Questioned on the possibility of a vaccine being developed, Lessells cautioned that whilst ‘the startling fact of this pandemic is how quickly the science has happened,’ a widely available vaccine is at least 18 months away. ‘Where we are now, the essential thinking is to reduce contact between people, because this is the main variable that we can currently control. Transmission is primarily via droplets and contact. These transmission methods lead to the recommended measures of physical separation and respiratory and hand hygiene.’

Lessells explained that Stage 1 of South Africa’s response focused on a public information campaign, international travel restrictions, school and university closures, and limiting mass gatherings. 

‘The cornerstone of our public health response has been the identification and isolation of infectious cases, with monitoring and quarantine of close contacts.’

As South Africa enters the next phase of lockdown, Lessells explained the implications: ‘The purpose of the lockdown is to reduce the overall contact rate in the population,’ he said. ‘On its own, lockdown won’t extinguish the epidemic, but it buys us time. We need to use this time wisely.’

Lessells strongly supported advice provided by the World Health Organization – who he praised for doing a remarkable job – on how to use this window of opportunity provided by lockdown optimally. In closing, he quoted Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of the WHO: ‘Use this time to expand, train and deploy your public health workforce. Implement a system to find every suspected case at community level. Ramp up the production, capacity and availability of testing. Identify, adapt and equip facilities you will use to treat and isolate patients. Develop a clear plan and process to quarantine contacts. And refocus the whole of government on suppressing and controlling.’

UKZN’s COVID-19 war room efforts have been supported by a Big Data consortium led by Petruccione, which provides daily statistical updates to track the behaviour of the epidemic in South Africa. 

‘We have amazing data visualisation tools,’ said Lessells. ‘What the graphs and statistics show us is that COVID-19 behaves in much the same way wherever it is and whatever the country. But the impact the virus has depends on us as humans and how we handle it.’

‘I am very happy that we have managed to continue with the tradition of data@breakfast in these challenging times,’ said Petruccione. ‘It is ironic that we just needed a tiny little virus to accelerate our use of the tools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution!

‘The COVID-19 team at UKZN are doing exceptional work.’

*Dr Richard Lessells trained as an infectious diseases and internal medicine physician in the UK and has a PhD from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He has been conducting clinical and population-based research on HIV and TB in KwaZulu-Natal since 2007 and is based at KRISP, UKZN.

For a video recording of Dr Lessells’s talk, please see online:

For further information visit or email

Words and photograph: Sally Frost

author : .
author email : .

Humanities Student Part of Education App Development

Humanities Student Part of Education App Development
Education student, Mr Lihle Mbatha.Click here for isiZulu version

Education student at UKZN, Mr Lihle Mbatha, is a member of a team that is developing an innovative Education App packed with educational resources for all subjects that is targeted at high school learners.

The app, which is still in its development stage, will have teaching resources such as videos, tutorial lessons, quizzes, tests and current affairs.

Mbatha and his teammates, Standard Bank interns, Mr Lehlogonolo Morgan Molaodi, and Mr Thabiso Seekane are confident that the app will benefit learners. ‘Missing a class does not mean missing a lesson. We aim to maximise participation among learners by positioning ourselves as a benchmark for future education,’ said Mbatha.

Their app services will focus on continuous engagement with learners by creating a workable frame for each individual learner ‘by assessing them so that an automated syllabus will be adjusted to their performance, increasing learners’ academic prowess,’ explained Mbatha.

In order to streamline the development and completion of the app, Mbatha conducted research on education and policies adopted by Basic Education in 2009, related to Information Communication and Technology (ICT) in education. He is also involved in recruiting a team of experts for all subjects offered at school level in South Africa, to provide content for the app.

‘The introduction of ICTs to our schools is generating fresh ways for students and teachers to engage in information selection, gathering, sorting and analysis. ICTs also have the potential to enhance the management and administrative capacity of schools,’ said Mbatha.

The app will be launched soon on the Google store.

Words: Melissa Mungroo

Photograph: Supplied

author : .
author email : .

International Women’s Day Feature Hones in on Drought Early Warning Systems

International Women’s Day Feature Hones in on Drought Early Warning Systems
Professor Muthoni Masinde and Dr Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi during their interviews with CNN.

A feature filmed by CNN on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus in celebration of International Women’s Day focused on a drought prediction tool developed by Professor Muthoni Masinde from the Central University of Technology.

Masinde is collaborating with researchers at UKZN who are working on establishing early warning systems for smallholder farmers who are vulnerable to climate change.

In the video, Masinde spoke about the innovative Information Technology and Indigenous Knowledge with Intelligence (ITIKI) app, web portal and SMS service she developed as a drought prediction tool. A computer scientist, she has focused on integrating scientific information with indigenous knowledge to address drought, which remains a major challenge in Africa.

Masinde aimed to provide smallholder farmers, who lack a suitable drought-forecasting tool and mainly rely on their indigenous knowledge for critical cropping decisions, with an accessible drought forecasting service that incorporates knowledge they identify with to accurately predict drought. She has achieved 98% accuracy in the system, which is used in three African countries by thousands of farmers.

Among other organisations, UKZN has partnered with Masinde in this application, which makes scientific knowledge meaningful and useful to farmers without requiring interpretation by researchers. This partnership falls under the umbrella of the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP), which is managed by uMgungundlovu District Municipality (UMDM) with support from the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), in partnership with the Department of Environmental Affairs.

The URP is increasing the resilience of vulnerable communities through interventions such as early warning systems, climate-smart agriculture and climate proofing settlements, and increasing climate resilience and adaptive capacity by combining traditional and scientific knowledge in an integrated approach to adaptation. Its interventions have included the development of early warning and ward-based disaster response systems within UMDM, particularly in the Swayimane community near Wartburg. These include the establishment of a lightning warning system at the local high school, where trials on climate-smart agriculture are also underway.

The feature was filmed at UKZN and in Swayimane, where indigenous knowledge is being combined with technology to provide small-scale farmers with information in their own language, particularly when it comes to early warnings about phenomena like drought.

Speaking on the development of ITIKI, URP Components Director and Honorary Research Associate at UKZN Dr Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi said, ‘This demonstrates that these two knowledge systems can coexist successfully, and shows the value of community-based early warning and providing context to information in people’s own language in a way that they can understand.’

Mabhaudhi indicated that there are plans to scale up early warning work with ITIKI to a national pilot for South Africa and the region, with researchers and developers hoping that as it grows, it does so with the farmers it serves.

Words and photographs: Christine Cuénod

author : .
author email : .

UKZN’s InQubate Hosts Training Camp for Intervarsity Competition

UKZN’s InQubate Hosts Training Camp for Intervarsity Competition
Facilitators and student entrepreneurs at the InQubate workshop.Click here for isiZulu version

Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) is hosting its second annual national Entrepreneurship Intervarsity Competition in 2020. Funded through the Department of Higher Education and Training’s University Capacity Development Programme and supported by Universities South Africa and its partners, the programme aims to identify the top student entrepreneurs at the country’s public universities and showcase their businesses.

In support of student entrepreneurs, UKZN’s InQubate hosted a training workshop to equip entrants for the competition.

InQubate Student Entrepreneurship Manager, Mr Khutso Ramontja highlighted that, ‘This year, we have one goal in mind and that is to give a good account of ourselves as UKZN in this competition.’

InQubate Intern, Miss Lilly Njila said that students can enter the competition in four categories, namely, Business Ideas; Technology; Social Impact; and General, with the latter three applying to existing businesses. The competition consists of three rounds; an internal one, where UKZN students will compete against one another, a regional round for all universities in the province and the finals, which will be held in Pretoria.

Enactus President at UKZN, Mr Muhle Ndwalane focused on key strategies that entrepreneurs should adopt to identify opportunities: listen to your potential clients and customers; study industry trends and insights; and look into your competitors. He encouraged contestants to conduct primary and secondary research to determine if their business ideas are feasible and urged them to regard problems as business opportunities. ‘Don’t fall in love with the solution; be passionate about solving the problem,’ he said.

InQubate Intern, Miss Samukelisiwe Kunene’s input dealt with the financial viability of a business, including its cost structure and revenue streams. She showed students how to draw up cash flow statements for their businesses and identified the factors that need to be taken into account in drawing up a financial model, namely: the problem the business would solve; how many people would have that problem; if they intend to pay you to solve that problem and how much they’re willing to pay you to do so.

The Creative Director for the Sika Creative Agency, Miss Liat Madinane encouraged students to know who they are and what they do as a business, in order to market and brand their businesses efficiently. ‘Entrepreneurship is about starting, but you have to be open-minded to the realities of your business and where it’s going. As an entrepreneur you are part of the 1% and that 1% doesn’t do what everybody else does,’ she said.

Student Governance and Leadership Development Officer, Mr Mandla Ndaba stressed the importance of presentation etiquette when contestants deliver their business ideas or models to a panel of judges. He advised entrants to be authentic; project their voices and have good pronunciation; create content that flows; present themselves well; have authority on stage and to be confident.

Words and photographs: Hlengiwe Khwela

author : .
author email : .

OPINION: Four Reasons to be Hopeful about South Africa’s Coronavirus Testing Plan

OPINION: Four Reasons to be Hopeful about South Africa’s Coronavirus Testing Plan
Professor Mosa Moshabela and Dr Richard Lessells are part of the UKZN COVID-19 team.

South Africa stands at a crossroads in the fight against the new coronavirus — and winning the battle will hinge on the decisions we make now about how quickly and how broadly we begin to test for the virus.

This week, government announced plans to embark on a massive campaign to trace people who have been in close contact with confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The country will also begin to increase screening or checking people for possible Covid-19 symptoms or risk factors to be able to refer those who need it for testing. New rapid tests, suitable for decentralised use, are set to be introduced in April. On Tuesday, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize also announced the country was also evaluating novel rapid tests for the virus.

Right now, who gets tested depends on who meets the criteria set out by the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). The NICD says that people with a serious respiratory illness and who also have at least one of the following symptoms, qualify for a test: A cough, sore throat, shortness of breath or fever (or a history of fever).

They must also have travelled to a high-risk country in the last 14 days or who have been in close contact with a suspected case of Covid-19 — this includes healthcare workers treating ill patients.

And importantly, the NICD has moved to also allow testing for anyone who has been hospitalised with an unexplained severe respiratory illness in line with what many countries around the world, such as Germany and Australia, now consider best practice.

Here’s why South Africa’s decision to expand the case definition of testing and to take it into the community, is a step in the right direction: 

1. If we diagnose more people earlier, we can isolate them faster to break the chain of transmission

This is one of the cornerstones of the public health response to any epidemic. Isolation may be in hospital, at home, or in another community-based facility. Without widescale testing, we will miss infectious cases in the community, particularly milder cases, which allows transmissions to continue unchecked.

Also, if a person has a positive test and understands that they are infected, this knowledge empowers them to adhere to isolation policies to protect their family and their community.

2. Without more testing, we won’t ever have an accurate picture of what is going on

Intensified testing is essential to get a more precise profile of the epidemic in the country and each province, and to understand where transmission is occurring.

The first few cases in South Africa were in people who had acquired the infection in European countries and then returned home.

Then infections were reported in people who had been in close contact with known cases, and subsequent cases have been reported in people that can’t be linked to any other confirmed case.

However, the true number of these cases is not clear from the national health department’s daily reports. Meanwhile, there is little information released publicly around where those cases are located outside of naming the province in which they have been reported.

If we can get a more accurate picture of where transmission is happening, then we will be better able to target screening and testing to the high transmission areas — both during and after the lockdown.

Antibodies are the proteins our body makes in response to infection. New rapid tests that seek to detect these proteins – versus the real-time presence of the virus itself – can give us clues to the history of transmission in South Africa. If we don’t do this during the lockdown, then if the restrictions are lifted in mid-April, there’s every reason to believe that there will be a resurgence of transmission.

3. We need the data to contain the new coronavirus — but also to plan for it

Broader testing is critical to allow for data-driven decision-making, and particularly to inform more accurate projections about the need for healthcare workers, hospital beds, intensive care unit beds, and ventilators.

Without accurate data on the number of infections and the trajectory of the epidemic, any projection on what is needed from the health system has a lot of uncertainty attached to it.

4. Is it the flu, or is it the new coronavirus? The impending flu season will make it harder to answer this question

As we move into normal influenza season, differentiating Covid-19 from influenza will be difficult for healthcare workers, and we may need to be able to test simultaneously for both the SARS-CoV-2 and the influenza virus, especially if — by then — we have evidence to support specific treatments for Covid-19.

South Africa has an extremely advanced laboratory network for molecular diagnostic tests – each year, the National Health Laboratory Service performs millions of the kind of molecular testing needed to diagnose Covid-19.

And the country has more than 180 GeneXpert machines that are set to begin testing for the new coronavirus in April.

This is good news, especially as efforts increase to make mobile testing a reality. The challenge for us at present, as with all countries, is getting hold of diagnostic kits and reagents.

As the epidemic escalates in many countries around the world simultaneously, there is huge demand and competition for the test kits and reagents being produced by a limited number of companies.

Diversifying the kinds of tests we use, and introducing new ones, can help reduce our vulnerability to challenges like these.

But so can enlisting the help of our university laboratories. This has been done in the United States, where the University of Washington Virology Laboratory is doing up to 3 000 tests per day and has now done almost 80% of all tests in that state.

Similarly, United Kingdom academic laboratories are supporting a new national testing facility in Milton Keynes that will help the UK scale up from 5 000 to 25 000 tests per day, Nature reports.

As with many things in this epidemic, we need to learn from what’s working in other countries and also be creative in coming up with solutions that can work in this country.

In the United States, testing criteria for the new coronavirus was initially too limited but, as authors write in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a "sudden pivot to a far broader testing approach, even as capacity remains limited, may be an overcorrection".

In South Africa, as in many other countries, diagnosing the new coronavirus will be a cornerstone of the response. Doing so will mean finding the sweet spot between what we want to achieve and what the health system can handle. We believe widening testing criteria to include people with acute respiratory illness is a start to finding this — and more cases of the new coronavirus.

Mosa Moshabela is the dean and head of the school of nursing and public health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Richard Lessells is an infectious diseases specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal research and innovation sequencing platform, KRISP at UKZN. 

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism.

Photographs: Terry Haywood and supplied

author : .
author email :