African Botanicals to be used to Boost Fight against Parasites

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


More than 1 billion people in the developing world currently suffer from tropical diseases, which leave a trail of disfigurement, disability and even death. Yet only 16 out of 1,393 – 0.01 percent – of new medicines marketed between 1975 and 1999 targeted tropical diseases (International Journal of Public Health).

A combination of poverty and lack of political will means disease-ridden countries do not invest enough in research and development to find new medical remedies to save lives.

A pioneering project hopes to turn to the continent’s plants to dig up new remedies to tackle the many diseases borne by parasites.

It seeks to boost prosperity in Africa while taking on the many diseases that harm and kill people and hold back economic progress on the continent. If successful, it will make disease-fighting part of the future prosperity of African science – and boost the woefully neglected field of tropical medicine.

What is at stake is the future of Africa, as the continent has the lowest life expectancies in the world. With just 15 percent of the world’s population, Africa carries a high disease burden, for example it has 60 percent of the global HIV/AIDS-infected population. Access to clean water is poor, with only 58 percent of people living in sub-Saharan Africa having access to safe water supplies (WHO). This leaves people exposed to water-borne parasites like Schistosoma (, which infects hundreds of millions and is the most crucial parasitic disease to tackle after malaria.

Africa’s biggest killers in order of severity are HIV/AIDS, diarrhoeal diseases, tuberculosis, malaria, childhood diseases, sexually transmitted diseases, meningitis, tropical diseases, Hepatitis B and C, Japanese encephalitis, intestinal nematode and leprosy.

Health resources are not being proportionately allocated: only 10 percent of financing for global health research is allocated to problems that affect 90 percent of the world’s population. This has been called the 10/90 gap (

“The untapped potential of African innovation capacity is enormous,” explains Dr. Éliane Ubalijoro, an adjunct professor of practice for public and private sector partnerships at Canada’s McGill University Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID) ( Her research interests focus on innovation in global health and sustainable development.

“Using African biodiversity to produce solutions to local (and global) problems will provide a generous return on investment in an area of the world that is destined for growth.”

Ubalijoro was recently awarded, along with Professor Timothy Geary, director of McGill’s Institute of Parasitology, a Grand Challenges Canada ( of CAD $1 million (US $1.04 million) to address parasitic disease through African biodiversity.

The Grand Challenges Canada grants are “dedicated to improving the health and well-being of people in developing countries by integrating scientific, technological, business and social innovation.”

It’s predicted Africa’s growing population will reach between 1.5 and 2 billion inhabitants before 2050: a lot of people needing affordable remedies and treatments.

Innovators have spotted an opportunity to simultaneously improve public health while also boosting Africa’s income from discovering new drugs. Traditional knowledge can play a critical part in the evolving innovation and commercialisation of Africa’s medicines and treatments.

Turning to these remedies and botanicals needs careful stewardship: Africa has a terrible reputation for counterfeit medicines, which kill and harm many people every year. The medicines also need to be affordable and accessible.

In some Asian and African countries, 80 percent of people use traditional medicines for primary care at some point (WHO). There may be sceptics amongst those used to name-brand medicines but traditional African medicines have a rich cultural heritage and have sustained Africans over the centuries. It is estimated the continent has over 50,000 plants to draw from, with fewer than 10 percent so far investigated to tap their potential medical utility.

From the start, most of the new funding for the McGill project will be spent in Africa. Out of the CAD $1 million dollar grant, more than half the funds will go directly to partners at the University of Cape Town and the University of Botswana. At first, the funds will be used to screen local biodiversity for promising leads. These will then be subjected to chemical testing in the lab to extract their potential utility for treatments.

“This system allows selection of natural product compounds that act on multiple target sites in the parasite,” according to Ubalijoro, “thus reducing the chances of developing resistance to the kinds of novel drugs that we hope to develop based on promising leads derived from this effort.”

The approach being taken by the project hopes to reduce the time it takes to get drugs to market and to shift the power and initiative to local solutions and scientists, rather than waiting for outsiders to come to the rescue.

The project hopes to contribute to not only improving people’s health but to stimulating local economies. This will be done by growing local pharmaceutical industries, retaining local talent which often now leaves the continent and doing rewarding and dynamic science within Africa. In short: making being in Africa attractive.

It is hoped the success of the project will breed more success, as has happened in other places – think Silicon Valley in California, or Bangalore in India.

“Success in this project will diminish the risk for technology-based investments related to health innovation,” said Ubalijoro, “helping to encourage local venture capital to help grow African science entrepreneurs. The overall benefit is improved livelihoods and prosperity locally as well as reduced spread of disease threats locally and internationally as we travel globally. ”

By bringing the science closer to those who need the help, it is hoped the painfully slow process of new drug development will take on a greater urgency.

“Discovery to production of a marketable drug can be a lengthy process,” said Ubalijoro. “But as novel methodologies are used to decrease candidate drug failure through the development and clinical processes, we can decrease the time it takes to bring drugs to market while empowering local innovation systems to lead the process instead of waiting for others to do so.

“The sense of urgency felt by local scientists to solve local problems can stimulate innovation and safe delivery of new medicines for African populations.”

Ubalijoro wants to see greater cooperation across disciplines and for people to come together in “innovation clusters,” that bring together policy, business and technical capability.

“I would like to see local investment in innovation coming from the public, private and NGO sectors,” explained Ubalijoro. “I would also like to see women scientists taking an active role in leadership and in becoming the next generation of innovating African scientists.”

Ubalijoro says that for those with money to invest, this is a vast opportunity waiting to be tapped. And she would like to see a dedicated African Innovation Fund set up for this purpose

“The message for venture capitalists and investors is simple: by cultivating local talent, we can help African scientists and entrepreneurs explore indigenous-based solutions to local health problems while taking advantage of the most advanced technologies available globally to ensure that quality, risk mitigation and profits can grow hand in hand with healing the ailments of African populations.”

Published: May 2011


1) RISE-AFNNET: African Natural Products Network: RISE-AFNNET works to develop Africa’s rich biodiversity into a natural products industry of social and economic significance. Building on an already active research network of 10 member countries called NAPRECA, RISE-AFNNET expands existing research programs and formalizes educational activities in such natural products (NP) fields as engineering, biochemistry, environmental science, pharmacology, economic development and nutrition. Students work on natural product research projects in the context of poverty alleviation, gender equity, and Millennium Development Goals. Website:

2) GIBEX: The Global Institute for Bioexploration is a global research and development network that promotes ethical, natural product-based pharmacological bio exploration to benefit human health and the environment in developing countries. GIBEX was established by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Both are leading US universities with strong records of building successful international programs in discovering and developing life-saving medicines. Website:

3) Screens-to-Nature Training: Scientists Learn New Way of Screening Plants for Pharmaceutical Applications. Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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Rainforest Rubbers Save Lives

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Two development goals are being achieved with one innovative business in Brazil. By using natural rubber tapped from trees in the Amazon rainforest to make condoms, Brazil is able to afford the cost of distributing condoms to tackle its HIV/AIDS crisis. Brazil currently imports more than 120 million condoms every year from China, Republic of Korea and Thailand, making it the world’s biggest single buyer of condoms. The government gives them away for free as part of a national campaign to combat HIV. More than 620,000 people in Brazil are living with HIV out of a population of more than 186 million (UNAIDS, 2005).

The Natex company, co-owned by the public health ministry and the north-western state government of Acre, has established a factory to turn rubber from the world’s biggest rainforest into condoms. The business has created 500 jobs at the factory and 150 jobs for the local indigenous population – the Xapuri – who are traditional rubber tappers.

The factory hopes to produce 100 million condoms a year from local rubber – just 20 million shy of all the condoms the country currently has to import – and could even reach 270 million at full capacity.

“This product will allow people to make love with security and to better plan their futures,” said Raimundo Barros, vice president of the local agricultural association.

The 15,000 Xapuri people who live on the Chico Mendes reserve – named after a conservationist and rubber tapper murdered by ranchers in 1988 – tap seringai trees, which produce rubber that is said to be a more effective barrier to the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), than synthetic rubber condoms.

The factory’s 500 employees will earn a total of Reais $2.2 million (US $1.3 million) while the tappers will see their income increase by 250 per cent as demand goes up for the rubber, according to Natex.

“Because of this I’ve managed to buy a few cows and give my family a better life,” rubber tapper Hugo Paz de Souza, 43, told local newspaper Pagina 20. Paz de Souza said the factory will double his income to US $394 a month.

The fact the trees will be saved because of their value as sources of rubber is a great boon to the world’s environment. The trees in the Amazon rainforest – the “world’s lungs” as some call it – face the threat of being chopped down to make way for Brazil’s booming agricultural economy. Official figures released in January 2008 showed that between August and December 2007, about 2,700 square miles were chopped down illegally in the Amazon rainforest. It was the first increase in deforestation after three years of declines and coincided with a rise in global food prices.

Marina Silva, Brazil’s environment minister, told the Guardian newspaper the Natex condom would help create “a new pattern of production and a new process of inclusion that would value the forest being left standing”.

Published: May 2008


Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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Archive Blogroll

Study Says Jetliner Air Quality Poses Health Risks: CUPE Takes On Airline Industry With Findings Of Survey

By David South

Now Magazine (Toronto, Canada), March 11-17, 1993

Canada’s troubled airline industry is about to face some more turbulence, as the union representing more than 6,000 flight attendents presses its concern that many of its members’ health problems are related to poor air quality in jets.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) says its locals have compiled data that paints a fairly stale profile of in-flight air quality and its relationship to altitude, passenger load and length of flight. As part of the survey, the union recorded flight crews’ complaints of chest pains and lack of oxygen, as well as other work-related problems like back injuries, hearing loss and high incidence of colds and flu.

Of more interest to frequent fliers might be the opinion of some experts that even the more common jet lag may be caused by excess carbon dioxide, ozone and radiation. More than half the air in many aircraft is recirculated, “stale” air that is high in carbon dioxide and may be carrying bacteria and viruses, according to some experts.

CUPE health and safety chair Tracy Angles says the union now has enough evidence to at least pressure the carriers to undertake more comprehensive air quality studies. CUPE represents workers at Air Canada, Canadian, Nationair, Air Transat and some smaller feeder carriers.

While the union’s study is the first of its kind in Canada, a survey by the US department of industrial relations found, among other things, that flight attendents had 20 times the expected frequency of respiratory illness.

Flying mines

“Flight attendants have been equated with coal miners in terms of the bad air they have to breathe,” says Angles. “But this is not something the companies want to study.”

However, spokespeople for Air Canada and Canadian Airlines say they have not heard of such health problems. Jerry Goodrich of Canadian simply says, “It’s not an issue.”

However, while earlier-model jets supplied the cabin with 100 per cent fresh air, increasing fuel costs led to some modification. Modern jets mix fresh air – expensive to produce – with stale air from inside the cabin, which is passed through filters. The percentage of recirculated air in some aircraft, such as the popular Boeing 747-400, could be as high as 52 per cent, Boeing’s figures show.

Boeing’s Tom Cole says air circulation in Boeing’s jets is better than in an average office building, and that the passengers are “washed” with air to eliminate carbon dioxide and other hazards.

Critics like Georgia doctor William Campbell Douglass, publisher of the health newsletter Second Opinion, charge that the high rates of recirculated air, and the reliance on passengers’ own breath and perspiration to humidify the dry air, provide a perfect environment for bacteria and viruses. Douglass even speculates that planes could transmit serious diseases like tuberculosis. He suggests jet leg could be “nothing more than CO2 intoxification and oxygen starvation.”

“There is no doubt if you are in a confined space, you are at greater risk,” says University of Toronto microbiologist Eleanor Fish. “Aircraft filter systems aren’t sophisticated enough to filter out all the bacteria and viruses. But I’d be hard pressed to believe that you are at greater risk traveling on airplanes than on elevators.”

It is difficult for public health authorities to pin down the health risks of airplane travel because passengers disperse immediately after a flight. However, medical journals have documented two cases where virus transmission could be established because the passengers were easily traceable.

In 1977, 38 of the 54 passengers on a plane grounded in Alaska for a four and a half hours came down with the same strain of flu.

“We consistently hear complaints about certain aircraft,” says Angles. “The Airbus 320 is one of the worst.”

Angles says many airlines exacerbate the problem by over-crowding planes and flying them longer and farther than they were designed for.

Cut corners

“With deregulation, they have more people in there than was ever planned on. Nationair is a good example. A normal class Air Canada 747 carries about 420 people. In the all-economy configuration the load is upwards of 496.”

Angles also says airlines have been known to cut corners by turning down air flow to save money. In their 1990 book The Aircraft Cabin: Managing the Human Factors, Mary and Elwin Edwards cite a study indicating a 1 per cent saving on a fuel bill can be achieved by reducing the ventilation rate in a McDonnel-Douglas DC-10.

More resources: 

April 2021 Terror at 20,000 feet

A new global campaign and film asks whether the air we breathe on commercial flights is as safe as we think it is.

Another issue, which frequently gets overlooked, is the quality of the air passengers breathe onboard

In February, a global campaign was launched by the Global Cabin Air QualityExecutive (GCAQE), which called for the mandatory introduction of effective filtration and warning systems, to be installed on all commercial passenger jet aircraft.

According to the GCAQE, there have been 50 recommendations and findings made by 12 air accident departments globally over the last 20 years, directly related to contaminated air exposures on passenger jet aircraft.

However, commercial aircraft continue to fly, with no contaminated air warning systems to inform passengers and crews when the air they are breathing is contaminated.”

Jetliner Cabins Are Quickly Cleared of Virus, Pentagon Says

“Particles the size of the new coronavirus are quickly purged from a commercial aircraft cabin, according to a U.S. Defense Department study touted by United Airlines Holdings Inc. in its effort to reassure wary travelers.

Filtration systems and rapid air-exchange rates mean that only about 0.003% of infected particles entered a masked passenger’s breathing zone, said the report, released Thursday.”

Aircraft Air Quality – Protecting Against Contaminants, Association of Flight Attendants

“On October 5, 2018, a 5-year FAA bill became law. Included in the bill is a study on technologies to combat contaminated bleed air. This is significant progress!”

‘Contaminated air’ on planes linked to health problems, 21 June 2017

AEROTOXIC SYNDROME: A NEW OCCUPATIONAL DISEASE?, Public Health Panorama, Volume 3, Issue 2, June 2017

Influenza Air Transmission, Influenza A (H1N1) Blog, September 28, 2009

“What does this tell us? Aerosols, very small particles of saliva containing the virus we exhale when we sneeze or even when we breathe if we have the flu, probably have an important role in the transmission of influenza. In addition to that we have public transportation, with a great number of people circulating in a place that may be closed and badly ventilated at times and we may have a notion of the importance of public campaigns that promote education and awareness of contaminated people to avoid leaving their homes when they have the flu and that they cover their mouth and nose with a disposable tissue when they sneeze and discard it right after that.”


Tuberculosis and Air Travel: Guidelines for Prevention and Control

“The revised International Health Regulations, adopted in 2005, provide a legal framework for a more effective coordinated international response to emergencies caused by outbreaks of infectious diseases. A number of provisions are relevant to the detection and control of TB during air travel, strengthening the authority of WHO and of national public health authorities in this domain. Because of these important developments since the original guidelines were issued in 1998, WHO has prepared this revised version to take account of current public health risks that may arise during air travel and new approaches to international collaboration in dealing with them. The guidelines were developed with the collaboration of international experts in air travel medicine and other authorities. Implementing the recommendations will help to reduce the spread of dangerous pathogens across the globe and decrease the risk of infection among individual travellers.

An outbreak of influenza aboard a commercial airliner, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 110, Issue 1, July 1979

“A Jet airliner with 54 persons aboard was delayed on the ground for three hours because of engine failure during a takeoff attempt. Most passengers stayed on the airplane during the delay. Within 72 hours, 72 per cent of the passengers became III with symptoms of cough, fever, fatigue, headache, sore throat and myalgia. One passenger, the apparent Index case, was III on the airplane, and the clinical attack rate among the others varied with the amount of time spent aboard. Virus antigenlcally similar to A/Texas/1/ (H3N2) was Isolated from 8 of 31 passengers cultured, and 20 of 22 ill persons tested had serologic evidence of infection with this virus. The airplane ventilation system was inoperative during the delay and this may account for the high attack rate.”

The Airliner Cabin Environment and the Health of Passengers and Crew.

“At the end of its review of health data in the 1986 report The Airliner Cabin Environment: Air Quality and Safety, the National Research Council (NRC) committee concluded that “available information on the health of crews and passengers stems largely from ad hoc epidemiologic studies or case reports of specific health outcomes [and] conclusions that can be drawn from the available data are limited to a great extent by self-selection…and lack of exposure information” (NRC 1986). This chapter reviews data on possible health effects of exposure to aircraft cabin air that have emerged since the 1986 report and the emergence of data resources (e.g., surveillance systems) and studies that have particular relevance for the evaluation of potential health effects related to aircraft cabin air quality. Selected earlier sources are also reviewed. The decision to ban tobacco-smoking on domestic airline flights in 1987 and on flights into and out of the United States in 1999 reduces the relevance of some studies of exposures and reported signs and symptoms that clearly could have been related to the products of tobacco smoke.” 


© David South Consulting 2021

Archive Blogroll

Changing Health Care Careers A Sign Of The Times

By David South

Hospital News (Canada), June 1992

Ontario’s health care system is in the midst of a big change. But where are the new jobs going to be and how can health care workers prepare for the coming crunch?

“Anybody who thought they could progress through the health care system until retirement is in for a shock,” said Ruth Robinson, a national health care consultant for Peat Marwick Stevenson and Kellogg management consultants. 

Radical changes are taking place in the health care system and it looks like traditionally safe occupations are in for a shake-up. 

“Hospitals are being pressured to change fundamentally,” said Ms. Robinson. “The net effect is fewer jobs. A lot of people will have to think about new careers.”

In the Ministry of Health working document entitled Goals and Strategic Priorities, released in January, the fundamental shift from treatment to disease prevention and health promotion is laid out in generalities. 

The goals range from health equity for aboriginals, women, children and AIDS patients to better management of costs to development of a stronger health care industry that will jump start the economy. And they range from the reorganization of professional responsibilities to promotion of services outside institutions with the goal of keeping people out of hospitals. 

One thing is clear, the talk is about big changes. But talk is cheap to laid-off health care workers looking for new jobs. 

The provincial government’s recently passed, but yet to be proclaimed, Regulated Health Professions Act will have serious repercusions for all health care providers. 

“Traditionally, doctors have an exclusive domain over a wide area,” said Charlie Bigenwald, executive director of health human resources planning at the Ministry of Health. “Even though other people could do things, they had to be delegated by a doctor. With the legislation, we have pushed back what doctors can do. This means there will be more opportunity for a wider variety of health care workers to get into those areas.”

Midwifery is one of the benefactors of changes in regulations. The Ministry of Health is looking into having a university-based program for midwives. 

Ms. Robinson predicted nurses and middle management will suffer the most in the change to community-based health care. 

“Nurses will need to get a bachelor degree if they hope to compete for jobs,” she said. 

As for middle managers, who often have clinical skills, they will have to reconsider staying in health care, she said. “They will disappear significantly. They can advance themselves by getting back to clinical skills or consider management positions in non-health care areas.

“There is nothing to be ashamed of about career changes these days,” she added. 

In the shift towards community-based care, opportunities will arise for health care workers who can offer creative solutions to improve service delivery. 

“For nurses, we currently have something called the Nursing Innovation Fund where individuals can apply for a wide variety of developmental things like attending workshops, conferences and training programs. We process 2,500 applications a year,” said Mr. Bigenwald. 

The Ministry of Health hopes the future sees a health care system that adds to the province’s economy rather than drains it. 

“We spend $17 billion a year on health care. We never looked at the health care system as an economic motor in the past. The question we are asking right now is ‘why can’t an Ontario firm make the carpets, beds, sutures etc?’, said Mr. Bigenwald. 

Ms. Robinson said “Governments are running out of money and can’t increase funding. They will be looking for more partnerships in the private sector. In this climate, creative solutions to health care delivery have a great opportunity.” 

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