Malaria is a public health concern that disproportionately harms pregnant women and children under the age of five. For pregnant women, malaria increases the risk of death, simultaneously impacting on the health of the foetus, increasing the risk of premature birth and low birth weight, contributing to neonatal and infant mortality. Malaria infected around 11 million pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa in 2018, resulting in almost 900 000 low birth weight babies born that year.
Globally, women in science are continually making strides to control and eliminate malaria. The University of Pretoria Institute for Sustainable Malaria (UP ISMC) comprises of researchers from all nine faculties at the University of Pretoria (UP). The UP ISMC has three research clusters, namely Human Health, Parasite Control and Vector Control, each with strong #UPWomen researchers helping to eliminate malaria in South Africa and Africa while simultaneously building capacity in the malaria space and empowering women in affected communities.
A medical doctor by profession, Prof Riana Bornman is an established NRF C1-rated senior research fellow in the School of Health Systems and Public Health (SHSPH) in the Faculty of Health Sciences. Her focus is on the Human Health cluster which highlights public and environmental health. Her interest in malaria lies in the health risks associated with malaria control interventions specifically, the use of insecticides*, in malaria-endemic areas. Since 2012, Prof Bornman has been the South African primary investigator (PI) to the Venda Health Examination of Mothers, Babies and their Environment (VHEMBE) cohort research programme. The research programme is comprised of a series of studies looking at environmental factors impacting maternal and child health in the rural Vhembe District in Limpopo Province. This birth cohort is the first of its kind in Africa.
Having conducted research in the Vhembe District since 2002, Prof Bornman has successfully established a community-based research structure in local communities. Prof Bornman recruited and trained local VhaVenda women to collect data. This mutually beneficial partnership between research staff and study villages, allows for unique population data collection in rural communities. Approximately 40 women of different ages have been empowered and benefitted from their training, with some of the women still working in the VHEMBE cohort and other UP ISMC studies. Others have managed to further their education and have successfully applied for jobs.
The UP ISMC’s Parasite Control cluster Chairperson Prof Lyn-Marie Birkholtz, from the Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, is an internationally acclaimed NRF B3-rated scientist, the DST/NRF South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Sustainable Malaria Control and the lead PI to the UP’s thriving Community of Practice in Evaluating Malaria Control Interventions. Her research through the SARChI Chair has led to the establishment of the South African Malaria Transmission-blocking Consortium (in collaboration with WITS, NHLS and the CSIR) – a unique platform of its kind in Africa that has established the expertise on identifying transmission-blocking anti-malarials.
Prof Birkholtz’s Malaria Parasite Molecular Laboratory (M2PL) is the training ground for many postgraduate students; currently comprised of 64% women. Under her supervision and mentorship, she has been guiding and mentoring young women into becoming influential researchers focusing on fighting malaria. The M2PL research staff is a full female ensemble who started as junior postgraduate students, including the successor to the SARChI Chair, Dr Jandeli Niemand, who was also a postgraduate student, all under Prof Birkholtz’s guidance.
The UP ISMC entomologist Dr Megan Riddin, also from the SHSPH, joined the institute in 2019. Dr Riddin is a senior researcher and heads the Vector Control cluster which contributes to the development, promotion and appropriate integration of safer, sustainable, new and innovative tools, technologies, methods and policies for optimisation of malaria vector control strategies.
Medical entomology is a scarce, globally sought after skill, and the UP ISMC is very fortunate to have the expertise of Dr Riddin. “I became a medical entomologist as I was fascinated by how intricate insects are, in particular, the vast effect that such small creatures can have on public and animal health. I wanted to find solutions to the burden of vector-borne diseases and to help save lives”, said Riddin. She hopes to make a difference by encouraging young, female students to become interested in (medically important) insects. Her interest in malaria started because of the devastating affect that the disease has on people resulting in thousands of deaths annually. “Mosquitoes, the malaria vector, are very proficient, efficient and rapidly evolving and I hope to understand them better to find solutions for malaria while helping to train a new generation of medical entomologists”.
Prof Tiaan de Jager, Director of the UP ISMC, shared that the UP ISMC believes in empowering women. “We hope that women will be inspired by our leading women scientists to take up careers in Science and help the world find solutions to its problems” he shared.
*The UP ISMC recognises the importance of using insecticides for malaria control, but also the necessity of finding safer alternatives to protecting the lives and livelihoods of people living in areas where these insecticides are used.