SEPTEMBER 09, 2014
In the last few years American taxpayers have spent tens of millions of dollars to examine ambiguous African health issues—including African sleeping sickness—and the money continues flowing under an Obama administration program dedicated to studying genes and environmental factors in the world’s second-largest continent.
The costly initiative is known as Human Heredity and Health in Africa Consortium (H3Africa) and in the last two years alone it has received an astounding $78 million, largely from Uncle Sam. The cash flows through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the nation’s medical research agency, and it funds all sorts of innovative things like research on “African sleeping sickness” and a special Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) component. The U.S. government justifies the funding by asserting that Africa is the “original cradle of all humanity.”
So far we’ve seen money go to universities and medical facilities in Nigeria, Mali and South Africa to research “fevers of unknown origin” and other illnesses believed to cause morbidity and mortality in “tropical developing countries.” There has also been genomic research on kidney disease, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. One of the project’s goals is to transform the way science is conducted in Africa and to develop expertise among African scientist, foster collaboration among African investigators and train the next generation of African researchers.
A few weeks ago the NIH proudly announced a $300,000 allocation to “support studies in genomic literacy among Africans as it relates to research conducted in Africa by African investigators.” This falls under the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications category, according to the government’s announcement. This chunk of money will fund projects to understand cultural and language concepts of genomics in Nigeria and another to determine Ethiopians’ understanding of gene-environment interactions. Among the goals is to increase awareness about disease susceptibility.
Why should American taxpayers care about any of this? Because it will help U.S. researchers “begin to get a better sense of what people in two different African countries understand about genomics concepts,” according to the NIH announcement. “We hope that what we learn from this work will lead to more effective informed consent discussions with potential research participants and to new culturally appropriate educational strategies about genomics,” said the H3Africa program director, an epidemiologist on Uncle Sam’s payroll.
Two key projects will benefit from this latest allocation. The first is a Nigerian study to gauge how concepts on heritability and genomics are understood in local languages. The second is an assessment of young people’s understanding of an Ethiopian disease caused by exposure to volcanic soil. Only Ethiopians with certain genetic variants are at risk and researchers will use our tax dollars to develop educational strategies and a resource to improve the understanding of these concepts in African communities.
It’s probably fair to say that most Americans aren’t exactly losing sleep over this, considering many are grappling with serious issues at home like a struggling economy, high unemployment and a constant threat of terrorism.
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