A 40-year-old tree – developing research capacity in Colombia

TDR news item
26 June 2014

TDR support that began in Colombia in the 1970s and had a ripple effect throughout Latin America was movingly presented by Dr Juliana Quintero at the 37th session of the Joint Coordinating Board this week. Dr Quintero is a co-investigator of a research project in Colombia investigating community and environmental approaches to reducing the aedes mosquito that carries dengue.

She used the metaphor of a 40 year old tree – the roots representing the thousands of researchers supported by TDR, the trunk carrying the various grant supported projects to Colombia, and the fruits as the impacts of this support.

The collaboration began with an institutional grant to the Universidad del Valle School of Public Health that resulted in scientists being trained from Mexico, Argentina and Chile in tropical medicine, epidemiology, entomology and parasitology. In the mid- 1980s, Dr Gabriel Carrasquilla received a scholarship for a doctorate degree at Harvard and a small grant for his thesis on the epidemiology of malaria in low endemic areas, and later back in Colombia, a programme-based grant that resulted in an award-winning health educational tool on malaria.

In 2003, as a first step of the new partnership collaboration with Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), TDR organized a proposal development workshop to pilot an environmental and community approach to identify ways to stop the resurgence of dengue fever in Latin America. Dr Juliana Quintero was a Girardot medical doctor interested in public health who got involved, later getting a 2006 TDR grant to get her Master’s degree in epidemiology.

By 2009, the pilot developed into a larger partnership collaboration supporting community-based ecosystem management research involving communities in 7 Latin American countries to identify ways to reduce the vectors – the aedes mosquito for dengue and the triatomine bug for Chagas disease.

Research that improved health and the economy

The research resulted in reducing the numbers of mosquitoes in Girardot, developing a new mobile phone technology to gather data in the field, and initiating new small businesses to make the screens and covers of water containers where the mosquitoes breed. It also proved how the measures reduced the risk of a dengue epidemic and its associated costs.

The project trained 23 new researchers, produced numerous research papers and scientific presentations, connected the Colombian researchers to a Latin American network of others in the same area, and opened the opportunity for new funding from other organizations.

The approach has been adopted by Colombia, and is being scaled up throughout the country. “My first daughter was born the year I started my Master’s degree,” Juliana adds, “and my second daughter at the start of the research project. So together with them, we wish TDR a happy 40th birthday, it has been an incredible experience to develop my career like this.”

For more information, contact:

Johannes Sommerfeld (sommerfeldj@who.int)