A first-of-a-kind diploma programme in infectious diseases, specifically tailored to the needs of the African health-care context, was launched at the beginning of 2022 by Stellenbosch University (SU), in partnership with the international humanitarian organisation, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF).
“Globally there are many courses in Tropical Medicine, but ours focus more broadly on infectious diseases and we try to add practical value from an African health care perspective,” says Dr Jantjie Taljaard, head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), and programme leader for the new Postgraduate Diploma in Infectious Disease. “In the programme, we study the diseases in detail, but also have cross-cutting themes – including antimicrobial stewardship, infection prevention and control and the One Health Principle which looks at health holistically – incorporating animals, humans and the environment.”
The diploma is the result of a partnership with MSF, which is underpinned by a five-year long memorandum of understanding. “We have always wanted to develop this kind of diploma course, and when MSF approached us to help upskill their doctors in Africa, we seized the opportunity,” says Taljaard. Half of the course participants are affiliated with and sponsored by MSF.
The two-year course is presented on a hybrid-learning platform and includes an initial two weeks’ of in-person contact in the first year, and one week in the second year. The rest of the course is self-directed online learning, complemented by regular interactive webinars.
The course consists of five modules that cover all infectious diseases that occur in Africa, and is tailor-made for the resource limitations of the continent. “We specifically look at the needs of people working in more rural environments with limited resources,” explains Taljaard. “We don’t merely promote state-of-the art clinical investigations with easy laboratory accessibility – we start off with what is possible in the rural environment and then indicate the stage at which a referral is needed. Where referral isn’t possible, we try to give empirical choices with regard to patient management.”
An important aspect is ensuring that the content is also relevant to the environments in which MSF works. “They contribute with diseases like Ebola or cholera where they have more practical outbreak-management experience than us,” says Taljaard. “They also contributed significantly to the development of the HIV/TB module.”
The modules are presented by a core group of Stellenbosch University staff with expert guest presenters from other institutions for some of the subject matter. The theoretical content is presented in a case-based, syndromic fashion. The division has strong backing from the university’s Hybrid Learning Team which has played a significant role in developing the interactive course content, upskilling facilitators and marketing the course.
The first intake of 17 students included participants from nine African countries: Nigeria, Mozambique, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Zambia, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa.
“We also learn so much from these wonderful doctors from across Africa,” says Taljaard. “You may have a doctor from the DRC who has seen many cases of a specific disease and can tell you how they diagnose and manage it in their setting. We learn a lot about coping in challenging environments, including war zones and refugee situations. There is great interaction between the different country participants.”
“Of course, this all links to managing future epidemics and pandemics. It’s about trying to prevent them completely or to prevent them spreading further.”