In a bold move to improve the health of South Africa’s poorest communities, scientists from the UKZN-based Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), Wits School of Public Health and the University of Limpopo will work together to establish a ground-breaking national data collection and research initiative.

The South African Network of Health and Demographic Surveillance Sites (HDSS) will be a fully integrated national platform for population data collection and analysis. It represents an important step towards understanding how poverty, inequality and unemployment impacts South Africans’ lives, and how to design better interventions. The initiative is one of 13 projects that make up the Department of Science and Technology’s South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap, a strategic intervention to provide research infrastructure across the entire public research system.

The project will link, integrate and standardise AHRI’s Population Intervention Platform in uMkhanyakude, KwaZulu-Natal, with the MRC/Wits Agincourt Health and Socio-Demographic Surveillance System in Bushbuckridge and the University of Limpopo’s Dikgale site. The three programmes have detailed longitudinal (across time) data on a collective population of over 250 000 people. A new rural site is planned for the Eastern Cape, as well as new urban population research nodes in Gauteng, eThekwini and the Western Cape. A broad range of data will be gathered from individuals and households; with information including residence status and migration, to household dynamics to employment and disease monitoring. This will be complemented by government records on health systems, school attendance and social grants.


(Above: Blood is drawn for a rapid HIV test in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Top photo: Jabulani Sibiya studies a map of households that make up the Africa Health Research Institute’s population research area. Photos: Ben Gilbert – Wellcome)

The aim is to generate up-to-date, accessible, dynamic and representative data, and host clinical and intervention studies which will provide a scientific base for forming policy. This in turn will improve the effectiveness of pro-poor health interventions.

“We want to study the determinants of ill-health, and how this then affects the population as a whole. With regard to the causes, we aim to disentangle the precise contribution of poverty, unemployment, and mobility/migration to disease. At the same time, we can measure how government policies aiming to alleviate some of these factors can actually improve health. What policies work well or less so, and how can such interventions be improved,” said Dr Kobus Herbst, AHRI Deputy Director and HDSS champion.

“UKZN is very excited by this initiative by DST which will enable untapped synergies, economies of scale, and leverage and exploitation of what will now be encapsulated as a key national resource; the use of which can only improve our ability to achieve improved human outcomes for our people,” said Professor Rob Slotow, UKZN Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Health Sciences.


(Above: (l-r) AHRI’s Dr Kobus Herbst, Dr Mark Collinson from the MRC/Wits University Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit (Agincourt), Professor Jesika Singh, Director Research Development and Administration at the University of Limpopo and Science and Technology Minister, Naledi Pandor, at the South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap launch on Tuesday, 4 October.

More about Africa Health Research Institute

The KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for TB-HIV and Africa Centre for Population Health have joined to form an exciting new interdisciplinary research institute, the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI). We do cutting-edge research that ranges from lab bench to population, applying the latest scientific innovations in the heart of the HIV and tuberculosis co-epidemic. Our aim is to become a source of fundamental discoveries into the susceptibility, transmission and cure of HIV and TB and related diseases, seeking always to improve diagnosis, prevention and treatment. Another of the major missions of the Africa Health Research Institute is training the next generation of outstanding African scientists. The new venture is made possible through grants from Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), with UCL (University College London) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) as significant academic partners.