Stellenbosch University: Research with impact showcased at FMHS’ 66th Annual Academic Day

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Climate change is the greatest threat to humanity and to global health right now. It is affecting the whole world and it respects no borders. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that the number of pandemics is increasing – and there are more than 10 000 viruses, besides SARS-CoV-2, that humanity has not yet encountered. These stark facts should sound an urgent wake-up call for the world to sit up and do something about climate change.

This was the sombre warning issued by Dr Patrice Matchaba, President of the Novartis US Foundation and a world-renowned leader in global health, who was guest speaker at the 66th Annual Academic Day of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) at Stellenbosch University.

In his address, entitled A new Urgency and Perspective about Global and Human Health, Matchaba cited the top ten threats to global health identified by the World Health Organisation in 2019. These were air pollution and climate change; noncommunicable diseases (NCDs); global influenza pandemics; fragile and vulnerable settings; antimicrobial resistance; Ebola and other high-threat pathogens; weak primary healthcare; vaccine hesitancy; dengue; and HIV.

“If you look at these top ten threats, they are all inter-related and the key thing there is climate change,” he said. “They all relate to how we have destroyed the environment and the impact that has had on humanity.”

Zimbabwean born Matchaba, who is also Novartis US Head for Corporate Responsibility, ran a practice in Obstetrics and Gynaecology in South Africa and worked at the Medical Research Council in Cape Town before joining Novartis Global 22 years ago.

He used images from around the world to illustrate the dire effects of climate change. These included a photograph of a huge pile of bison skulls waiting to be ground up and made into fertilizers, demonstrating “the total destruction of a beautiful animal and species”; a photograph of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, showing the destruction of the biodiversity “that is so fundamental to ocean life”; an image of vast swathes of dry grass in Hyde Park, London taken recently to show “a drought we would never have imagined”; and a photograph of the dried out Rhine River, which starts in Switzerland and carries 80 percent of goods and services in Europe.

He showed a picture of a hurricane in the US – “we are seeing more and more violent hurricanes in the US because of the Atlantic Ocean warming up.” And he also showed a picture of the crowds of people who queued for water in Cape Town during the city’s close shave with Day Zero in 2018, saying: “If it can happen in Cape Town, it can happen anywhere in the world.”

“So, if you ask me what’s the number one threat to global health and humanity – it is climate change. And in all your research fields, you can do something about it,” he told the packed audience.

Matchaba also referred his audience to an article in the Nature journal on how climate change increases cross-species viral transmission risk. Other journals have also sounded warnings about the effects of climate change on global health.

He called for increased research and innovation into the effects of climate change. Global leadership and new science are needed to tackle climate change and to prepare for future pandemics, and to focus on carbon capture and green economies, he stressed. It is also vital to do everything to preserve the biodiversity of plants and animals.

“You have the talent to do this. You showed this during Covid-19,” he told the FMHS researchers and clinicians, adding that it was a very positive move that the university is training scientists around Africa in pandemic preparation.

In his opening address for the FMHS’ 66th Annual Academic Day, Prof Nico Gey van Pittius, FMHS Vice Dean: Research and Internationalisation, said the faculty’s research enterprise has never, in the history of its existence, been on a stronger footing. He showed statistics illustrating the faculty’s growth of over 150 percent in research output units; an increase of 130 percent in doctoral enrolments; an increase in PhD graduates by more than 200 percent, and an increase by 560 percent of post-doctoral fellows over the last ten years.

Professor Elmi Muller, FMHS Dean also spoke of the many successes which the faculty has delivered to date, including excellence in teaching and learning, research, and importantly the great strides it has made in diversity and transformation. “But we want to continuously grow and build and expand,” she said, and highlighted a number of ideas on how to take the faculty to the next level.

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