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An African Perspective on the Importance of Scientific Discoveries

A new type of coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, put our lives up-side-down for over a year.

The devastating effects of this pandemic were seen worldwide, with high mortality rates in the European and American continent.

Contrary to the expectations, a lower number of deaths was reported in Africa. Despite the millions of people severely affected, these underdeveloped countries mainly registered the appearance of mild COVID-19 symptoms. In addition to the difficulty of testing populations, possible reasons include that most Africans are under the age of 30, healthy and presenting no history of pre-existing chronic comorbidities. However, the risk of manifesting severe respiratory distress leading to COVID-19 fatality is commonly associated with communities affected by significant malnutrition.

The relationship between nutritional status and severe COVID-19 outcomes is a great health concern, especially in Sub-Saharan regions, where lower levels of iron affect the course of infectious diseases and represent one of main causes of immunodeficiency. Iron is required to activate the immune system, as capable to influence the adaptive immune response against pathogen invasion. As reported by Joe N. Frost et al., in a research article published in the journal Med, in February 2021, low iron levels sustain inflammation, impede the production of an adequate T cell cytokine response, impair lymphocytes proliferation, and suppress antibody production. Hepcidin expression is significantly affected, and the importance of iron redistribution in building a proper immunological memory has direct implications on the activation of the immune response to vaccination. The high prevalence of anemia in Africa emphasizes the relevance of these findings for potential risks of viral persistence and induced complications.

Once more, this highlights the necessity to place science at the central stage of a knowledge-based communication between researchers and decision-makers, for the design of public health policies. Awareness should be raised about the potential need for underdeveloped countries to combine therapeutic approaches aimed at potentiating COVID-19 vaccine effects, especially when individuals cannot produce a proper antibody response. Towards this aim, the link between iron deficiency and impaired immunity should be further investigated, as those data might aid understanding the symptoms associated with COVID-19 pandemic. Correlations between clinical reports and iron levels could be easily established and the adoption of proper therapeutic measures might prevent the appearance of severe COVID-19 manifestations. Sharing this knowledge might also favour launching sensitization campaigns for disease control, especially in countries where social distancing or confinement is not an option, thus preventing the long-term impacts that severely affect the African continent.

There is an urgent need to build quality research and medical systems allowing underdeveloped countries to cope with difficult disease realities and to acquire those skills necessary to answers critical questions and control disease outbreaks. This should be a civic duty for developed countries, which often collect the benefits of research conducted in Africa or with African samples.

The global scientific effort we all witnessed to produce vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 should continue providing medical and scientific training to fragile health systems and in regions where hospitals are often improvised and lack intensive care units. The establishment of new scientific collaborations between developed and African countries is highly necessary, given the importance of transferring knowledge to health professionals and enabling the implementation of efficient disease control and vaccination programs.

Martin Luther King said, and I quote: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Promoting investments to raise the quality medical and scientific education in Africa matters.

Training health professionals to provide best care to patients matters.

Guiding the implementation of efficient research-based health policies matters.

We All Matter.

Raffaella Gozzelino, PhD

posted: March 9, 2021