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Celebrating 25 Years of the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme

23 Oct, 2014

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The KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme (KWTRP) in Kenya began life in a single building beside the county hospital in Kilifi. 25 years on, this thriving research centre has a string of research breakthroughs under its belt, and is home to an international team of researchers working to improve health in Africa. Professor Kevin Marsh directed the programme from its inception in 1989, until August of this year. He shares some of KWTRP’s success stories and his memories of the past 25 years…

It’s an exciting time for science in Kenya – not only is it the 25th anniversary of the creation of the KWTRP, but this year is also the 50th anniversary of the partnership between the Wellcome Trust and the Government of Kenya to support health research in the country.

There is a real sense of pride in the programme’s achievements, so we’ve been marking this anniversary year with a whole series of events. Many of our celebrations have been based in the communities around Kilifi on the Kenyan coast, where the programme is headquartered.

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The programme is a partnership between the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), which is the national body with a responsibility for heath research, Oxford University and the Wellcome Trust.

When we began there were around a dozen of us working on a single project trying to understand what led to some children developing life-threatening malaria. Now KWTRP is an internationally recognised multidisciplinary programme employing around 800 people tackling the biggest issues in health that are facing Kenya and many other African countries.

KEMRIPICAlthough headquartered in Kilifi, several of the programme’s major groups are located in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. They have made major contributions in areas such as health systems research, including a programme of work with the Ministry of health to improve the management of children in hospital across Kenya, and large-scale mapping of the malaria burden across Africa, which is used by governments and international bodies in planning and monitoring the battle against malaria.

I am often asked what’s the most important work we have done? It’s an impossible question to answer given the sheer breadth of disciplines involved. But we are all proud that much of the work – from landmark studies on impregnated bed nets and work on new vaccines, through large scale studies on the management of sick children – has had direct impacts on national and international policy and guidelines, and contributed to improving the lives of millions of children.

Perhaps the thing that has given me most personal satisfaction has been our role in supporting the development of Kenyan science and scientific leadership, with many of the programme’s alumni going on to important leadership positions in other centres in Kenya and elsewhere.

On a personal level I am excited to be returning to the programme for the celebrations – even though it’s only been two months since I left! That time has already allowed me a bit of distance to look back over the last 25 years.

Kemri before and afterLooking at the purpose-built KEMRI centre now with its state-of-the-art laboratories and support facilities, it’s amazing to think that in 1989, programme researchers were housed in a single dilapidated building in the grounds of Kilifi County hospital. Importantly, the close relationship with the hospital still remains with many programme researchers actively involved in patient care.

People often ask me what the key to our success has been. The question makes me nervous as I suspect many of the things that look planned in life have had a large element of plain good luck, but the one thing that is absolutely clear is the importance of people.

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We have been incredibly fortunate to have a wonderful group of colleagues – some of whom were there from the start, others joined later – but all of whom have made the programme what it is.

It’s because of the great team at KWTRP that I am sure the programme will continue to go from strength to strength – I’m already looking forward to my invite to the 50th anniversary celebrations in 2039!

KEMRI-Wellcome’s celebrations come to a climax this week with a two day scientific meeting, followed by a day of celebration including the opening of a new training building. There will also be exhibitions of the programme’s work that will be attended by many guests from within Kenya and around the world. For more information see http://www.kemri-wellcome.org/

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