This content is a spotlight of the African Researchers' Small Grants Program. It was originally published on USAID's Medium blog.
When Pelagie Boko-Collins first began working as an entomologist — a scientist who studies insects — future careers in her home country of Benin seemed limited.
In Benin, I’d say 95 percent of our entomology research is focused on malaria vector control,” she said. “This field can’t just be malaria, malaria, and more malaria. Mosquitoes — they transmit so many other diseases.”
In 2012 — after working for eight years on malaria vector control with Benin’s Ministry of Health — she heard a lecture from Professor David Molyneux of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the scientist credited with coining the term “neglected tropical diseases.”
His drive to bring attention to lesser-known afflictions inspired her to do the same. She began master’s studies at Liverpool the following year and shifted her focus towards neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs.
Specifically, she wanted to address the issue of lymphatic filariasis, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes that can cause severe disability and debilitating swelling. At that time, nearly 4 million people were at risk of contracting lymphatic filariasis in Benin — with many unaware of the disease and how to prevent it.
Beginning in 2013, with support from USAID, Benin’s Ministry of Health began giving medicines annually to help prevent lymphatic filariasis. Through this strategy, entire communities are offered medicines that prevent the transmission of lymphatic filariasis. However, even with that support in place, not everyone knew about the strategy to prevent the disease.
“There was a boy who was about 13 years old, and he had already started developing lymphedema [swelling]. His parents were sad when we explained to them what caused the disease and what they could have done to prevent it,” said Pelagie.
She began to wonder if studying mosquitoes could help the Ministry of Health determine disease hotspots so it could focus on reaching those most at risk. Without such a strategy, the ministry would have to test for lymphatic filariasis by using blood drop samples from people in endemic areas.
“More and more, our communities are reluctant to allow blood sampling for surveillance,” Pelagie explained. “It’s considered to be invasive, and it has more ethical constraints and lead[s] to high rates of refusals or dropouts from the study.”
Looking at mosquitoes was another potential approach. Through a process called molecular xenomonitoring, researchers test mosquitoes — not humans — for the presence of disease-causing parasites. If they find signs of the parasite in the mosquitoes, that is their cue to look more closely for the infection in humans.
Pelagie finally had an entomological focus outside of malaria vector control. The only trouble was getting it funded.
“It’s rare to have funding as an individual to conduct research,” she said.
Fortunately, in 2017 USAID launched a new program to do just that. The African Researchers’ Small Grants Program provides research funding to individual researchers based in Africa. With this funding, they can develop solutions to the problems posed by NTDs such as lymphatic filariasis in their home countries. The African Research Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases, or ARNTD, runs the program through grant funding to the Coalition for Operational Research on Neglected Tropical Diseases, or COR-NTD.
Pelagie applied and was admitted into the second cohort of the African Researchers’ Small Grant Program. That year, 2019, the British government matched USAID funding to the program, and the number of researchers supported tripled from the year before.
Since its launch, the African Researchers’ Small Grants Program has provided more than $700,000 in research funds to 37 researchers from 15 countries. This relatively modest investment has helped accelerate efforts to eliminate NTDs in Africa.
“The Small Grants Program has had a significant impact on the NTD program in our country,” Pelagie said.
Before she conducted her project, Benin’s NTD strategy did not include an entomological aspect. Now, her findings are informing the country’s final push to eliminate transmission of lymphatic filariasis, with molecular xenomonitoring influencing decision making.
The program has also furthered Pelagie’s career, helping her to secure her current role with Sightsavers as Neglected Tropical Disease Program Manager for Benin and Togo. Many of her colleagues have now been inspired to apply to the African Researchers’ Small Grants Program, as well.
“Since my research project, there is more and more attention within the country to understand what is going on — because NTDs weren’t just neglected worldwide, but in my country. Research in the NTD field was not well developed,” she said. “Now the program has more and more motivation to conduct research in this field and to show what they’re doing in order to reach vulnerable people.”
Photo courtesy of Pelagie Boko-Collins