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Wits-Cambridge exchange in political theory aims to redress historical colonial power relations

- Wits University

Wits University and the University of Cambridge, UK, have announced an academic exchange programme in political theory.

The programme, launched by the SARChI/Newton Bilateral NRF/British Academy Research Chair in Political Theory, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Cambridge, aims to balance historical colonial power relations by empowering the global South through research and engagement.

The programme is one of the central pillars of the Chair in Political Theory, held by Wits Professor of Political Studies, Lawrence Hamilton, in the School of Social Sciences. The purpose of the Chair is to deepen understanding – and thus citizen agency – in politics by building research networks in political theory between the two institutions. A condition of the Chair is that Hamilton spends six months at Wits and the remaining six months of the year at Cambridge. 

“We live in a globalized world, heavily determined by histories of colonial power relations. An exchange programme of this kind is a feather in the cap of Wits and the NRF [National Research Foundation] because it is part of a vital attempt to re-balance that history by enabling political theorists from the global South to participate on an equal footing," says Hamilton.

"There are equal resources on both sides; that is, to send young political theorists from Wits to Cambridge and vice versa. In both directions, this programme enables African political theorists to really theorize from the global South, talk back to the global North, and not allow Africa to be another laboratory for the global North." 

Early career lecturers, postdoctoral fellows and PhD students whose research in political theory would benefit from spending time in the other institution are encouraged to apply. The programme accommodates visits for one to six months in either institution.

The deadline to apply to participate in the exchange programme is 15 October

“This programme enables a vigorous exchange of ideas from the perspectives of two very different contexts. Such engagement increases the prominence and promise of political theory in South Africa to better understand and promote the country’s transformation agenda,” says Hamilton.

Early 'homebodies'

- Wits University

New study finds 'staying longer at home' was key to Stone Age technology change some 60 000 years ago.

A new study by scientists at the University of the Witwatersrand suggests that at about 58,000 years ago, Stone Age humans began to settle down, staying in one area for longer periods. The research also provides a potential answer to a long-held mystery: why older, Howiesons Poort complex technological tradition in South Africa, suddenly disappear at that time.

Sibudu, a rock shelter near Tongaat in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, has a long and diverse archaeological sequence.

The research paper by Dr Paloma de la Peña and Professor Lyn Wadley from the Evolutionary Studies Institute and the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, was published today, 5 October 2017, in PlosOne, and is titled: Technological variability at Sibudu Cave: The end of Howiesons Poort and reduced mobility strategies after 62,000 years ago.

De la Peña and Wadley explore the changes observed between an industry known as the Howiesons Poort (dated about 65,000 to 62,000 years ago at Sibudu) and the one that followed it at about 58,000 years ago.

The Howiesons Poort at Sibudu contains many finely-worked, crescent-shaped stone tools fashioned from long, thin blades made on dolerite, hornfels and, to a lesser extent, quartz. These ‘segments’, as they are called, were hafted to shafts or handles at a variety of angles using compound adhesives that sometimes included red ochre (an iron oxide).

A diverse bone tool kit in the Howiesons Poort includes what may be the world’s oldest bone arrowhead. Certainly a variety of hunting techniques was used perhaps including the first use of snares for the capture of small creatures. The animal remains brought to Sibudu reflect this diversity for there are bones from large plains game like zebra, tiny blue duiker, and even pigeons and small carnivores.

Soft, clayey ochre pieces were collected in the Howiesons Poort perhaps at a considerable distance From Sibudu. Clayey ochre is useful for applying as paint.

The beautiful Howiesons Poort industry with its long, thin blades is replaced at 58,000 years ago by a simple technology that could be rapidly produced. Coarse rocks like quartzite and sandstone became popular. These could be collected close to Sibudu. Post-Howiesons Poort tools were part of an unstandardized toolkit with triangular or irregularly-shaped flakes. Tiny scaled pieces were also produced using a bipolar technique (in the simplest terms this involves smashing a small piece of rock with a hammerstone).

There are many grindstones in Sibudu at 58,000 years ago, and these were used to grind ochre and/or bone. Ochre use also changed. Silty ochre found close to Sibudu was popular at 58,000 years ago and rather than suggesting tasks different from earlier ones, people may have wanted to collect raw materials close to their camp.

Various types of evidence suggest that by 58,000 years ago people stayed in Sibudu longer than before. There was considerable, rapid accumulation of sediments built up in millimetre-thick lenses from stacked layers of burnt sedge and grass bedding. Grass bedding gets infested with pests so people can either burn bedding to clean the camp or move out.

Environmental factors do not seem to have caused the time-related technological and site-formation changes that we have observed. We are inclined to favour social transformation as the reason. It is possible that changes in band size and/or membership of the group influenced decisions about whether to stay in Sibudu. We do not know whether group size was larger at 58,000 years ago than before, or whether small groups occupied the site for a long time. What we can say is that the people using the simple post-Howiesons Poort technology were ‘homebodies’ who preferred to collect the raw materials they needed from close to their camp.

The Howiesons Poort at Sibudu

  • Fig 1: Discoidal cores and tested cores made in local rock types from the post-Howiesons Poort layers of Sibudu Cave. Photo: Paloma de la Peña
  • Fig 2: Quartzite bipolar cores from post-Howiesons Poort layers from Sibudu Cave. Photo: Paloma de la Peña
  • Fig 3: Grindstones from post-Howiesons Poort layers from Sibudu Cave. Photo: Lyn Wadley
  • Fig 4: Different tools found in the post-Howiesons Poort layers of Sibudu Cave. Most of the pieces demonstrate an unstandardized toolkit. Nonetheless, typical Howiesons Poort segments (B, D and F) still were produced. Photo: Paloma de la Peña

Systems Analysis: Seeing the bigger picture

- Wits University

In September, the Wits Rural Facility became a ‘lab in the bush’ for a hands-on systems analysis thinking and modelling programme.

Postdoctoral, early career, and emerging researchers in multidisciplinary science fields, from Cameroon, India, Iran, southern Africa, and Tanzania, participated in the 2017 Southern African Systems Analysis Centre (SASAC) Emerging Researchers programme hosted by Mary Scholes, a professor in the Wits School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at Wits.

Jai Clifford-Holmes of Rhodes University took delegates through an intensive three-day systems modelling process. Here delegates learnt to use cutting-edge software to explore systems analysis case studies and develop their own models on diverse, real-life themes including small community fish farming, a cholera outbreak, drug-related crime, and how lithium scarcity affects electric vehicles.

Playing politics to practice food security, water management, pollution, sustainability

Participants had a huge amount of fun playing the Nexus simulation game facilitated by Piotr Magnuszewski from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). The game provides unique insights into the interconnected challenges of water, food and energy management. Some took on the roles of policy-makers, such as the President, Minister of Energy, and Minister of the Environment of two imaginary neighbouring countries, one upstream from the other, while others acted as representatives of NGOs, the World Bank and various funding and humanitarian organisations. The goals of the two countries overlapped, and decisions made by the one about water, energy and environmental policies had significant effects on the other, not always expected, and frequently severely detrimental.

Delegates at the Southern African Systems Analysis Centre (SASAC) Emerging Researchers programme hosted by Wits' Prof. Mary Scholes in APES, play the Nexus game

The interactive role-playing game Nexus involved representatives of two imaginary countries debate competing concerns of food security, water management, pollution and sustainability. Photograph: Simone Titus

Interactions became heated and tempers flared on occasion as participants found their inner politician and strove to address the water needs of their imaginary country and its people, industry, and agriculture, while facing the challenges of climate change, pollution and sustainability. The role-playing scenarios allowed participants to practice strategic systems analysis thinking while developing negotiation, cooperation and conflict resolution skills in an interactive and meaningful way.

Integrated, interdisciplinary collaboration the foundation of systems analysis

Food, water, health, energy, risk, migration, climate – most of these challenges can’t be solved by looking at them from only one perspective. The answers lie in integrated and interdisciplinary collaboration, which is the foundation of systems analysis. This is one of the few research approaches that provide the ‘bigger picture’ view, taking into account contingencies and uncertainties, and enabling robust decision-making.

Recognising the pivotal role that systems analysis will play in addressing global issues and informing policy, SASAC was formed in 2016 to develop greater capacity for systems analysis research approaches in South Africa, and grow high-level international research networks.

This multi-year initiative for scholars with research interests as diverse as public health, earthquake engineering, wetland management, transport infrastructure, adaptive dynamics and urbanisation is supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF), the South African Department of Science and Technology, and the IIASA, in collaboration with the universities of the Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch, Western Cape and Limpopo.

The lab in the bush

As an introduction to systems analysis, participants in this year’s SASAC Emerging Researchers programme spent 10 days in an urban environment on Wits Main Campus, interacting with leading systems analysis scholars including David Everatt (Wits), Bob Scholes (Wits), Ulf Dieckmann (IIASA), Dillip Das (CUT), and Michael Gastrow (HSRC), before heading off to the wilds of Mpumalanga for an immersive experience at Wits Rural Facility.

“Programmes like this are vital. Systems analysis is one of the only tools that can span the complexity of the interconnected global problems that face us today. Building capacity in this area, and boosting the knowledge and understanding of today’s talented up-and-coming researchers, offers our best chance of overcoming the substantial barriers to sustainability,” says Mary Scholes.

Participants reacted positively to the programme, which included a community visit to Acornhoek and a day trip to the Kruger Park.

“I will definitely incorporate systems dynamics modelling in my research and in that of my 15 Master’s and doctoral students,” said one of the participants from the University of the Western Cape. “[These are] a very useful set of tools indeed that will allow me to infuse policy scenarios in order to justify interventions.”

Wits University will host the programme again in 2018. Anyone interested in participating, or who has students or colleagues who might benefit, is encouraged to keep an eye out for the 2018 call for applicants from the NRF in March 2018.

Academy of Science SA elects Wits researchers for their scholarship and social impact

- Wits University

Seven scholars from Wits were inaugurated into the Academy of Science of South Africa at its annual Awards Ceremony held on 11 October 2017.

Wits academics were amongst 41 members elected on the basis of two principal criteria: Academic excellence and significant contributions to society.

Wits researchers elected to the Academy of Science SA (clockwise from top left: Professors Karen Hofman, Imraan Valodia, Penelope Moore, Vishnu Padayachee, Sarah Nuttall, Bhekizizwe Peterson, and Isabel Hofmeyr.

Professor KAREN HOFMAN is Director of PRICELESS SA (Priority Cost Effective Lessons for Systems Strengthening), which is an independent research unit in the School of Public Health at Wits. PRICELESS analyses how scarce resources can be used effectively, efficiently and equitably to achieve better health outcomes. Hofman has led advocacy for taxing sugar-sweetened beverages, based on research that shows fiscal measures will mitigate dangerous and expensive public health outcomes, including obesity and diabetes. Hofman is a graduate of Wits Medical School and trained as a paediatrician. She served as Director of Policy and Planning at the US National Institute of Health, Fogarty International Center. She is widely published in international, peer-reviewed journals.

ISABEL HOFMEYR is Professor of African Literature in the Faculty of Humanities at Wits and Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. Her current research focuses on Africa and its intellectual trajectories in the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Her work addresses questions of Africa’s intellectual place in the world, and the material and aesthetic history of texts and their transnational circulation. She has published extensively in the fields of postcolonial literary studies, print culture, book history, oceanic studies, and Indian Ocean studies. Hofmeyr has served as Acting Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, which she helped establish. 

Professor PENELOPE MOORE is a Reader and DST/NRF South African Research Chair of Virus-Host Dynamics at Wits and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. She holds an MSc in Microbiology from Wits, studying gastroenteritis-associated adenoviruses, and a PhD in Virology (Medicine) from the University of London, when she studied the Hepatitis B virus. Moore’s current research focuses on HIV broadly neutralising antibodies and their interplay with the evolving virus. Recent studies published in PloS Pathogens, Nature and Nature Medicine highlighted the role of viral escape, the findings of which have implications for HIV vaccine design – and thus profound effects on society. 

Professor SARAH NUTTALL  is Director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER). A literary scholar by training, she won a Rhodes scholarship to read for a DPhil. at Oxford. Her research interests and prolific publication record have established her as a leading cultural commentator and critic, and one of the leading scholars of her generation. She has edited several path-breaking books and her influential monograph, Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-apartheid, explores mutuality, transgression and embodiment in contemporary South Africa.

Professor VISHNU PADAYACHEE is a Distinguished Professor and Derek Schrier and Cecily Cameron Chair in Development Economics, School of Economic and Business Sciences at Wits. He holds a PhD in Economic History/Economics and is a member of the board of directors of the South African Reserve Bank. He was inducted as a member of the Royal Society of South Africa in 2012. In his research, Padayachee explores: varieties of South African capitalism; news directions in central banking and monetary policy; inequality, macroeconomics and capitalism; and South Africa’s great economic policy debate, which refers to the evolution of ANC economic and social policy from 1943 to 1996 and how this shapes contemporary policy choices.

BHEKIZIZWE PETERSON  is Professor and Head of African Literature in the School of Language, Literature and Media at Wits. His research interests include African literature, performance, film and popular culture; Southern African literary studies; black intellectual traditions and transnationalism; and studies of the black diaspora. He has served on various editorial, statutory and artistic committees, juries and boards across the continent and has held invited Fellowships at Yale University and Birmingham University, UK. He is the writer and/or producer of internationally acclaimed films including Fools, Zulu Love Letter and Zwelidumile and Born into Struggle, The Battle for Johannesburg and Miners Shot Down. In 2012, he published Dignity, Memory and the Future under Siege: Nation-building and Reconciliation in the new South Africa.

Professor IMRAAN VALODIA is the Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management at Wits. He is a professor of development economics and his research interests include employment, the informal economy, gender, and industrialisation. Valodia chaired the Advisory Panel on the National Minimum Wage appointed by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and he initiated a five-year interdisciplinary project to focus on inequality in South Africa. This Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS) project will be launched on 25 October 2017.

About the Academy of Science of South Africa

The ASSAf was inaugurated in May 1996 in response to the need for an Academy of Science consonant with a democratic South Africa. Its mission is science and scholarship for the benefit of society. Its mandate encompasses all scholarly disciplines that use an open-minded and evidence-based approach to build knowledge. The “science” in ASSAf reflects a common enquiry, rather than an aggregation of different disciplines.

The ASSAf honours South Africa’s most outstanding scholars by electing members across disciplines. This prestigious election takes place annually. Members are the core asset of the Academy and volunteer their time and expertise to serve society.  

When Parliament passed the Academy of Science of South Africa Act (Act 67 of 2001), effective 15 May 2002, the ASSAf became the only academy of science in South Africa officially recognised by government and representing the country in the international community of science academies and elsewhere.

The South African Young Academy of Science

Last month, the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS) inaugurated Benita Olivier, an Associate Professor in Wits Physiotherapy Movement Analysis Laboratory in the School of Therapeutic Sciences

SAYAS is the voice of young scientists and aims to: 

  • contribute solutions to national and global societal challenges
  • provide a platform for young scientists to influence policy decisions
  • develop scientific capacity in South Africa through mentoring and role-modelling
  • foster opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations amongst young scientists.

Wits team involved in international breakthrough in astronomical observation

- Wits University

Breakthrough paves the way for future Multi-Messenger astronomical observations

For the first time in history, Wits researchers have witnessed electromagnetic signals that are associated with the gravitational wave emission from the coalescence of two massive neutron stars.

The HESS telescope in Namibia

Working with data from the High Energy Spectroscopic System (H.E.S.S) telescope in Namibia, as well as with data from the AGILE Italian satellite, Professor Sergio Colafrancesco and his Team from the School of Physics at the University of the Witwatersrand, complemented a large variety of electromagnetic (e.m.) observations that were able to record signals from the same neutron star merger event.

These e.m. signals range from the detection of a gamma-ray burst about 2 seconds after the gravitational wave event detected by Ligo-Virgo, over near-infrared, optical and UV emission from decay of radioactive nuclei created in the resulting kilonova, to X-ray and radio emissions detected several days and weeks after the event. This first and extremely successful observation campaign is marking the beginning of truly Multi-Messenger Astrophysics.

The collision of the stars was such a massive event, that it emitted in gravitational waves the energy equal to three solar masses (three times the mass of the Sun), that was picked up by both the Ligo and Virgo Gravitational Wave interferometers. This event was announced at an international media conference in Washington DC today (Monday, 16 October, 4pm SA time).

“The Virgo and Ligo teams picked up the signals of the gravitational waves, and triggered the pointing of our telescopes in the direction in which they detected it. We narrowed down the area and pinpointed the source of the gravitational wave event to the collision of the two neutron stars,” says Colafrancesco.

HESS observation

While the H.E.S.S telescope was trained on the event, it followed up a gamma ray burst in the same part of the sky, which exploded only two seconds after the merging of the two neutron stars.

“This is the first time ever that an astronomical event such as a gamma ray burst, and other relative electromagnetic signals, was observed alongside an event large enough to emit gravitational waves,” says Colafrancesco.

Gamma ray burst are explosions in distant galaxies that release extremely high amounts of energy. They are the brightest electromagnetic events known to occur in the universe, and are very rare, with only a few occurring in a galaxy every million years.

“It was previously believed that gamma ray bursts might occur when a high mass star collapses to form a neutron star or a black hole, or during the merger of two binary neutron stars – as in this case – but now, for the first time, we have the actual evidence for it,” says Colafrancesco.

Gravitational waves are only emitted by as massive objects in the universe interact with each other, such as black holes or neutron stars that merge.

The collision and merging of the two neutron stars was observed (by Ligo in Hanford, Washington in the USA, and in Livingston, Louisiana in the USA, and by Virgo, in Cascina, Italy) on 14 August 2017. The observation was named GW170817.

A neutron star is a very compact star, that is not as compact as a black hole, but their merger might result in a black hole.

In the case of the GW170817 event, the two neutron stars, with respective masses in the range 0.86 to 2.26 times the mass of the Sun merged into a single star with a mass of  about 2.82 times that of the Sun. In this coalescence event, an amount of energy equal to about 0.3 times the mass of the Sun was emitted in form of gravitational waves.

This energy was picked up by the three advanced gravitational wave laser interferometers, located thousands of kilometres away from each other when the passage of the gravitational wave provides an oscillation of the lengths of their two arms, at the same frequency of the incoming gravitational wave. This displacement effect is very tiny: as an example, the gravitational wave generated by the merging of two neutron stars in a galaxy close to ours will stretch the distance Earth-Sun (150 million of km) by the size of an atom.

“This is the start of new Multi-Messenger Astronomy, where various techniques such as the gravitational wave laser interferometers – which is a displacement measuring tool – and astronomical techniques such as telescopes sensitive to e.m. radiation are used together to study one single event,” says Colafrancesco. “Especially when the event is so big that it emits gravitational waves.”

Scientists from over 70 observatories involved in the observation gathered large amounts of valuable data from the event, including learning what the source of the gravitational waves was. They also learned how an event that emits gravitational waves relates to other kinds of radiation, such as gamma rays, infrared radiation and radio waves, emitted from space.

“We now know for certain that an event associated with gravitational waves is related to the emission of electromagnetic radiation, as in a gamma ray burst,” says Colafrancesco.

Lost mountains in the Karoo reveal the secrets of massive extinction event

- Wits University

Fossil records near the lost Gondwanides mountains show that the Permian-Triassic extinction started 1 million years prior to what was previously believed.

Remnants of the massive Gondwanides mountain range that spanned across five continents over 250 Million years ago, can still be found in South Africa’s Karoo region. Picture Credit: Pia Viglietti.

Millions of years ago, a mountain range that would have dwarfed the Andes mountains in South America, stretched over what is currently the southern-most tip of Africa.

Remnants of these mountains – called the Gondwanides, after the massive supercontinent, Gondwana over which it stretched – once spanned the southern continents of South America, Antarctica, South Africa and Australia, and parts of it now form the mountains near Cape Town in South Africa.

It is in the shadows of these ancient mountains that Dr Pia Viglietti, a post-doctoral fellow at the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) at Wits University, found the secrets of one of the biggest mass extinction events that Earth has ever seen.

“We’ve established that climatic changes related to the devastating end of the Permian mass extinction event about 250 Million years ago were beginning earlier than previously identified,” says Viglietti.

The Permian-Triassic extinction was one of Earth’s largest extinction events, in which up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species became extinct.

Dr Pia VigliettiFor her PhD, Viglietti studied the fossil-rich sediments present in the Karoo, deposited during the tectonic events that created the Gondwanides, and found that the vertebrate animals in the area started to either go extinct or become less common much earlier than what was previously thought. Her research was published in Nature Scientific Reports.

“The Karoo Basin takes up a huge portion of South Africa and most of us who drive through it do not think much of it,” says Viglietti. “But if you know what you’re looking for, the Karoo represents a wealth of knowledge about the story of life on Earth.”

The Karoo tells a 100 Million-year long story of the supercontinent Gondwana, and if you can read this rock record you will find the story of the life and death of the animals it supported. 

“The Gondwanides not only influenced how and where rivers flowed (depositing sediment), it also had a significant effect on the climate, and thus the ancient fauna of the Karoo Basin,” says Viglietti.

Large mountain ranges put a lot of weight on the Earth’s crust, creating a depression in the crust. This can be described by using the analogy of a person standing on the edge of a diving board. The person represents the “load” (or weight) of the mountain while the diving board is the earth’s crust. The depression causes sediment to accumulate around the mountain’s base. It is in this sediment, where rocks and fossils are preserved.

As mountains erode, they put less weight on the Earth’s crust, and the depression decreases, just like the diving board would react to the diver jumping off it. This was the effect that the Gondwanides had on the sedimentation in the Karoo Basin over a 100 Million years. The traces of this tectonic dance are preserved by periods of deposition and non-deposition.

“During my PhD, I have identified a new tectonic “loading” event (mountain building event) that kick-started sedimentation in the Latest Permian Karoo Basin,” says Viglietti.

The sediments during this loading event also provided evidence of climatic changes as well as evidence of a previously overlooked “faunal turnover”, that points to the start of the end Permian mass extinction event.  

“Within the last million years before this major biotic crisis, the animals had already started to react. I interpret this faunal change as resulting from climatic effects relating to the end-Permian mass extinction event – only occurring much earlier than previously identified,” says Viglietti.

Energetic engineering at EIE Open Day 2017

- Wits University

The ‘Brainternet’, robotic arm, mosquito repeller, adaptive digital hearing aid, leaf recognition software – our future engineers show their stuff.

The School of Electrical and Information Engineering held its first Open Day in three years this week, showcasing 44 exciting laboratory projects completed by fourth year students did this year.

As part of the curriculum, these electrical and information engineering students paired up to use all the engineering skills and knowledge they had gained as undergraduates to design and build their projects.

This fourth year project by Irfaan Mohamed & Nabeel Seedat, titled: Grip control of robotic prosthetic hand using haptic feedback, drew quite a crowd. Here Irfaan (standing) demonstrate how the hand and sensors work by using Deepam Ambelal (sitting) as their testing subject.

“Staff members set the projects and vaguely specify what is required; and then the students have to plan the entire project, show what technology they are going to use, assign different tasks between them, and build the final project,” says the new Head of School, Associate Professor Estelle Trengove.

“Most of the projects have at least a bit of innovation in them and some of them are even prototypes that can be developed further,” she adds. Industry representatives and the School’s funding partners also attend the Open Day to see these innovations that could spark a new generation of technologies in future.

School of Electrical and Information Engineering Open Day 2017

Being appointed as the new Head of School earlier this year, Trengove has also set her sights on rethinking the curriculum in order to fit future engineers with the necessary holistic skills for a rapidly changing world.

The School’s curriculum is benchmarked against the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) outcomes, and its accreditation was recently successfully reviewed during the ECSA’s five-year-visit.

Says Trengove, “We will continue to meet and exceed the ECSA’s benchmark in the future. We do also need to introduce innovation and entrepreneurship into the curriculum that could mean some programme changes in future. It is very important for our students to have innovation and entrepreneurship skills in order to create a new generation of scientists and engineers that meet the needs of modern society.”

Life-saving new vaccines for Africa

- Wits University

"Wits and Vaccines: the impact and potential of vaccines for Africa” is the title of a lecture hosted by Wits Faculty of Health Sciences on 1 November, 17:30.

Vaccinations. together with access to clean water, have had the biggest impact on public health globally since the 20th century, which saw the control of fourteen diseases through vaccine use, including the eradication of smallpox and near-eradication of polio.

Today, life-saving new vaccines are being developed that are targeting all age groups, different populations and devastating disease outbreaks, such as Ebola and yellow fever. However, especially in Africa, far more can be done to increase the impact of immunisation, and to address neglected- and emerging disease threats through the development of new vaccines. 

The 16th prestigious research lecture will profile the work of two of Wits University’s internationally recognised, African-led research institutions working in the field of vaccinology, and outline the impact of vaccine research on regional and global health outcomes. The lecture will be delivered by Co-Directors of the Wits African Local Initiative for Vaccinology Expertise (ALIVE); Professor Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology in the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences and Director of the Medical Research Council (MRC) - Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit (RMPRU) and Professor Helen Rees, Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI).

The research undertaken by the 21-year-old RMPRU has focused primarily on the leading causes of death in children under-5 years of age, namely pneumonia and diarrhoeal disease. Professor Madhi reveals: “The research has more recently been expanded to focus on vaccination of pregnant women to protect the mother, foetus and newborn. The first randomised placebo-controlled trial showed that influenza vaccination of pregnant women provided approximately 50% protection in the mothers and their young infants against influenza illness.”

Because of the evidence provided in landmark studies undertaken by RMPRU, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that a number of new vaccines are included into public immunisation programmes of low-middle income countries. Included are the first randomised controlled trials on a pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, which target the most common cause of death from pneumonia, and the rotavirus vaccine that targets the most common cause of diarrhoeal associated death in children. Both these studies were published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

“Largely from this local-led study, South Africa was the first country on the African continent to introduce these vaccines into its childhood public immunisation programme. In doing so, immunisation of South African children with these two vaccines has resulted in 40-50% reduction in all-cause pneumonia and diarrheal hospitalization,” he says. “In addition, the lives of approximately 45,000 children have been saved since these vaccines were introduced into the public immunisation programme in 2009.”

In addition to the introduction of new vaccines, a priority area of vaccine research focuses on immunisation coverage of the target population. While a vaccine can protect an individual, high immunisation coverage is required to protect whole populations. Moreover, the Global Vaccine Action Plan adopted by the WHO in 2010 introduces the concept of immunisation across the lifespan to give population protection against a range of diseases beyond childhood.

Complementing the work of RMPRU, the Wits RHI, established in 1994, has focused on the introduction of vaccines into adolescents and older age groups. In preparation for the introduction of the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines into South Africa in 2014, Wits RHI undertook a series of evaluation and acceptability studies. With the successful introduction of HPV vaccines among 9 and 10-year-olds, Wits RHI is now exploring the impact of HPV vaccines on the epidemiology of HPV and its potential impact on the prevention of a range of HPV related cancers.

“With the successful global introduction of the HPV vaccine among 9 and 10-year-olds, there is a growing interest in adding other vaccines aimed at protecting adolescents and young adults. In this lecture, we will explore what else could be offered as part of an adolescent vaccine platform, and present on-going work on the development of new vaccines for other sexually transmitted diseases including herpes simplex vaccines, gonorrhoea and HIV,” explains Professor Rees.

While new vaccines are being developed that are targeting all age groups and different populations, the threat of emerging pathogens, especially in the African region, has also created urgent calls for the accelerated development of vaccines that can be used to prevent potentially devastating disease outbreaks. The Wits RHI has, for many years, been working with the WHO and Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) to assist in the development of global and regional policies and priorities for new vaccines.

Celebrating Wits University’s leadership in vaccinology, the prestigious lecture will end by outlining a new flagship programme awarded to the University in 2016 by the South African Department of Science and Technology/ National Research Foundation (DST/NRF), to strengthen African leadership in vaccinology research and advocacy. This flagship programme, Wits ALIVE, brings together accomplished Wits scientists with a broad range of expertise relating to vaccines and immunisation and aims to foster multi-disciplinary collaborations, build capacity across the region and fill critical knowledge gaps for new vaccine development and deployment.

About Professor Shabir Madhi

Professor Shabir Madhi, is an international leader in the field of Vaccinology, for which he has been acknowledged with an A-rating by the National Research Foundation since 2011. He completed his undergraduate and postgraduate training at Wits (M.B.Ch.B, 1990) and qualified as a paediatrician in 1996 (FC Paeds (SA), M.Med Paeds (SA) 1998, and PhD 2003). Professor Madhi holds the position of Professor of Vaccinology in the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences and is Director of the Medical Research Council (MRC) - Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit, as well as the DST/NRF South African Research Initiative Chair in Vaccine Preventable Disease, and Co-Director of the Wits ALIVE programme.

Professor Shabir Madhi

About Professor Helen Rees

Professor Helen Rees (GCOB, OBE, MB BChir (CANTAB) MA (CANTAB), MRCGP, DCH, DRCOG, RCOG FP instructor, mAssaf) is Executive Director of the Wits RHI at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she is also a personal professor in Obstetrics and Gynaecology and the Co-Director of the Wits ALIVE programme.  Wits RHI is the largest research entity of the University of Witwatersrand with a mandate for research, health systems strengthening and training in the fields of HIV, reproductive health and vaccines. She is an Honorary Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where she also served as the international Heath Clark lecturer and is a member of their Visiting Committee. She is an Honorary Fellow at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge University, and an alumnus of Harvard Business School as well as being a Gold Medal award member of the South African Academy of Science.

Professor Helen Rees