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Keyword: south africa

By Dr. Anne von Gottberg, Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit, National Institute for Communicable Diseases

This article was originally published on and is cross-posted here with permission.

If you had looked at South Africa’s invasive pneumococcal disease (IPD) surveillance data before 2002, you would have never guessed that one day that data would land on the pages of the New England Journal of Medicine

Even I thought such a feat was impossible. Surveillance for IPD was passive and patchy – certainly not the kind of data you could use to examine trends or measure impact.  In 2002, experts in pneumonia and respiratory disease suggested that we completely revamp the system: start measuring antimicrobial resistance and serotypes, obtain clinical data from cases to explore risk factors for resistance.  Although this was long before the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) was introduced, we knew any investments we made in the surveillance system now would pay huge dividends later, and possibly allow us to measure the impact of PCV introduction.

Noluthando Duma works in the lab

An example of disease surveillance activities. Here, Noluthando Duma works in the lab. Photo: NICD.

Revamping a national surveillance system was not an easy task.  Our institute managed the process - from employing surveillance staff throughout the country to collecting data - and we had many, many challenges.  This project seemed so unusual, so impossible, that it was difficult to convince anyone to join us.  We would interview surveillance officers at remote regional sites who wondered how they could report to a central office in Johannesburg, given that they had never even been there; they couldn’t imagine how such a big, unwieldy national program could ever work. We would answer their questions with what I hoped sounded like confidence, but the truth was that we were figuring out the answers as we went along.

Despite these human resource challenges, we charged ahead, but it was a slow-and-steady race.  At our national surveillance officer and principle investigator meetings, we had to bring together key stakeholders to discuss the surveillance network.  We had to get buy-in on the methods, the case definitions, the flow of data, and sharing of information, and then we had to hire staff to operationalize our ambitious plans. Many new hires had never been on an airplane before, and some had never seen the ocean – the surveillance network really made South Africa smaller, bringing people together in the “new South Africa” in ways that I could not have predicted. So we anxiously booked window seats, made time for quick excursions to the beach, and hoped for the best. And although we had our fair share of hiccups along the way, our small team continued to grow, the years passed, and we kept on finding ways to silence the naysayers!

Meanwhile, things did not stay still around us.  The South African government suddenly found the political will to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and with a tremendous effort, the government and civil society rapidly improved care of HIV-infected pregnant women, HIV-infected children, and adults in general.  With these sudden improvements in healthcare, IPD also changed, making it more difficult to attribute any declines to the vaccine, even with the new surveillance system.  But through a series of discussions with local and international colleagues and friends, countless conference calls, and careful review of the data, it finally became possible to tell the story that was in the data, collected for so many years by our dedicated surveillance teams.


Colleague Kedibone Ndlangisa conducting lab work. Photo: NICD

Last week, as experts and decision makers gathered in Kenya to discuss the results of various PCV impact studies from across Africa – all showing significant reductions in pneumococcal disease after the introduction of the vaccine – I was reminded of how far we had come on our journey and the many lessons learned on our path. 

By maintaining our slow-and-steady approach remembering to “ask a friend” when we were stumped, and above all continuing to plow on in the face of challenges, we were able to turn data that at first glance may have looked like a mess into a meaningful and robust assessment of the impact of PCV. 

This study is part of the the Vaccine Implementation Technical Assistance Consortium (VITAC) - a collaboration of PATHCDC, and IVAC - supports the achievement of the mission to save lives, prevent disease, and promote health through timely and equitable access to new and underused vaccines. VITAC is focused on accelerating the introduction and sustained use of vaccines by creating the evidence base, advocating for evidence-driven decision making, and establishing a platform for countries to assess the resources needed for sustained and optimal use of vaccines.

By Jillian Murray

 “Influenza… what about HIV? That’s what people are dying from here.”

These are the words I heard in countless conversations while working on an influenza research project in South Africa last summer. Nearly every time I mentioned I was working on a public health research project I was met with a chorus of “ohhh HIV.” After explaining that I was, in fact, researching influenza, the conversation usually shifted to wondering why I would focus on something other than HIV.

I remember leaving some people unconvinced of the importance of studying respiratory diseases. Many had an emotional connection to HIV and recounted stories of people they knew dying of AIDS, but were unable to recall someone who died of influenza. In some populations, this acute awareness of the devastation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic has led to an ideology where an HIV diagnosis is mutually exclusive of other diseases.

Jillian Murray and a colleague.

Jillian Murray and a colleague in the Soweto township in Johannesburg during interviews for a health survey.

I found it interesting to witness the distinct hierarchy in the perceived importance of certain diseases. Influenza causes annual worldwide epidemics and can be a life-threatening complication of many other diseases, but because many people rank it’s severity slightly above the common cold, it is often assumed to be rather harmless. This is not only true in settings where there are other high priority communicable diseases, but is a common perception in North America as well.

The true burden of influenza is not well described in many developing countries. However, the burden is expected to be higher in developing compared to developed countries because of underlying factors that contribute to greater severity of disease – factors like crowding, low birth-weight, malnutrition and HIV, among others. In contrast to developed countries where the burden is primarily in the elderly population, these socio-economic factors play a role in broadening the demographic that is most at-risk for severe influenza in South Africa.

A better understanding of the burden of influenza is important for pandemic planning and more effective distribution of vaccine supply. While in South Africa, I worked under the supervision of Daniel Feikin, IVAC’s Director of Epidemiology. With the help of researchers at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, we used a statistical model that adjusted for influenza risk factors between different provinces to estimate the burden of severe influenza at the provincial and national levels.

As it turned out, my work was very much related to HIV, which severely compromises the immune systems of those affected. There is evidence that HIV-positive individuals suffer a much greater mortality rate from influenza than HIV-negative individuals and that the risk for acquiring influenza in HIV-positive individuals is much greater than in HIV-negative individuals. A high prevalence of HIV, such as exists in South Africa, can cause the burden of influenza to be much greater than you would expect in a population with low HIV prevalence. For these reasons, HIV became one of the most influential risk factors for which we controlled in our study.

An important aim of the burden study in South Africa was to guide public health authorities in the country on how their policies regarding influenza vaccination can better meet the needs of their population. The HIV prevalence in South Africa, while varied between provinces, averages 17% in the 15-49 age group. It is crucial for public health officials to understand the disproportionate risk people in this age cohort have of developing severe influenza infections, and to develop policies and programs accordingly.  

My conversations about why I was researching influenza were both valuable learning and teaching opportunities for me. The devastating HIV epidemic in South Africa is inextricably linked to increased susceptibility of its population to concomitant infections, such as severe cases of influenza. Therefore, it is important that discussions of HIV and influenza overlap in order to reinforce in the public’s mind the relationship these diseases have with each another. I hope I was able to play a role – however small – in increasing this understanding.


Jillian Murray is a second year Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) student in the Global Disease Epidemiology and Control program at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Jul 2015