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National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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Building Regional Capacity for Environmental and Occupational Health Research in West Africa

By Megan Avakian

Scientists from West and Central Africa and North America are teaming up to establish a robust enduring hub of environmental and occupational health (EOH) research for the region. Based in Ghana, and in cooperation with the Community of Practice in Eco-Health for West and Central Africa (COPES-AOC) program in Benin, the research hub will leverage and build upon longstanding and extensive EOH collaborations between academic and government partner institutions across West and Central Africa to enhance research and research training capacity in the region.

The effort is being funded through the Global Environmental and Occupational Health (GEOHealth) program, launched by the NIH Fogarty International Center (FIC) in partnership with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Through the GEOHealth program, institutions in low-or middle-income countries work with a U.S. institution to advance research and research training capacity around high priority EOH threats.

Led by Julius Fobil, Dr.P.H., from the University of Ghana, Nil Basu, Ph.D., from McGill University, and Thomas Robins, M.D., from the University of Michigan, the West Africa GEOHealth Hub will build capacity in the region by training West African researchers in cutting-edge EOH research methodologies and techniques. The trainees will then get the opportunity to apply, strengthen, and share this knowledge as they conduct collaborative research projects at an electronic waste (e-waste) site in Accra, Ghana.

Breaking the Language Barrier

Hub's key partners

In June, the Hub’s key partners gathered at the Regional Institute of Public Health in Benin to discuss opportunities and challenges to building environmental and occupational health research capacity in West Africa.
(Photo courtesy of Nil Basu)

West Africa is made up of French- (Francophone) and English-speaking (Anglophone) countries, and there is a great need to join Francophone and Anglophone EOH efforts. “Many West African countries share the same environmental and occupational health hazards, but because existing West African networks were built along the French and English linguistic divide, we have a situation where a portion of the population may not benefit from all EOH research and research training occurring in the region,” explained Fobil. “By working with partners from both Francophone and Anglophone countries, the GEOHealth program provides us an opportunity to break this language barrier and create a network that is truly representative of West Africa.”

Training Overseas and at Home

One way the Hub will address the language barrier while building research capacity is by training West African researchers at academic institutions in North America. Small teams of two to four postdoctoral and Ph.D. students from West Africa will spend four months working in laboratories at the University of Michigan in the U.S. and McGill University, located in French-speaking Montreal, Canada. During this time, the students will be exposed to cutting-edge research methods, techniques, and equipment. Up to 16 West African students will train in North America, with the first cohort beginning in January 2017. In addition to the students, senior scientists from West Africa will also spend time training in North America. According to Basu, affording senior researchers this time away from their daily work allows them to focus on and dedicate themselves to the project and the trainees.

The Hub will also support research training at home in West Africa by working with partners to strengthen existing and launch new master’s and doctoral EOH programs. To accomplish this, Hub partners will share existing curricula, host cross-country curriculum development workshops, and work with faculty from well-established EOH programs.

Using the Field Site as a Learning Environment

The Agbogbloshie e-waste site in Accra, Ghana

The Agbogbloshie e-waste site in Accra, Ghana, is one of the largest informal e-waste dumping and processing centers in Africa.
(Photo courtesy of Nil Basu)

Students trained through the Hub’s efforts will get the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned by conducting field research at the Agbogbloshie e-waste site in Accra, Ghana, one of the largest informal e-waste dumping and processing centers in Africa. E-waste recycling activities at the Agbogbloshie site expose workers, local residents, and families to a mix of harmful chemicals, including lead, flame retardants, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. “This study will help us more fully understand the health effects of informal e-waste recycling activities — which is an emerging, global EOH issue affecting populations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” said Fobil. “Our specific research goals are to characterize work-related, time-varying, job-specific exposures of e-waste recycling workers at the Agbogbloshie site and evaluate associations between these exposures with cancer risk and respiratory outcomes.”

Agbogbloshie e-waste site worker

The e-waste recycling process exposes workers to a complex mixture of harmful chemicals.
(Photo courtesy of Nil Basu)

The study site will provide a high-quality research training ground for students from academic institutions across West Africa to conduct research together and build lasting collaborations. “The whole idea is that by bringing these students together — Anglophone with Francophone, epidemiologists with chemists, students from government with students from universities — we can bridge linguistic, disciplinary, and institutional boundaries to build EOH research capacity in West Africa,” said Basu.