Highlights of the 16th Joint Annual Scientific Health Conference (JASHC)

The Makerere University College of Health Sciences (MakCHS) held its 16th Joint Annual Scientific Health Conference at Speke Resort Munyonyo, Kampala, Uganda from the 21st to 23rd September, 2022. Imbedded in the conference were the 28th UNACOH Conference, 3rd MinOSH International Conference, 20th Dr. Mathew Lukwiya Memorial Lecture and the 1st National Antimicrobial Resistance Symposium.

The conference organization led by the School of Medicine (SOM) was themed, Makerere@100: The Role of Health Professions Education in Strengthening Health Systems, Research, Global and Community Health for Economic Development. This was a celebration of 100 years of Makerere University and an opportunity for health professionals and stakeholders to share advances in training, research and service delivery in Uganda, sub-Saharan Africa and globally.

The conference was officially opened by Professor Barnabas Nawangwe, Vice Chancellor – Makerere University. In his remarks, Professor Nawangwe congratulated MakCHS and partners for organizing the conference more especially in this centennial year of Makerere existence as a centre of excellence. The Vice Chancellor commended the college for being a leader in research and innovation, ‘MakCHS is our flagship college contributing 50% of all the research publications of Makerere University in a given year’, he said. He added ‘we are proud of the output and the many affiliate institutes, like the Institute of Infectious Diseases (IDI) established through the college that work to serve the population’. The Vice Chancellor also explained that establishment of a research and teaching hospital is in advanced stages with support of government. ‘I believe that the CHS will fly even higher’, he added.

Speaking at the opening of the conference, Professor Damalie Nakanjako – Principal, MakCHS welcomed participants to the meeting. Professor Nakanjako highlighted the history of MakCHS as a centre of excellence for groundbreaking research and innovations dating back to establishment of Makerere Medical School in 1924. She mentioned some: ‘Burkitt lymphoma, a tumour of the jaw in children, was first described in Uganda, in 1964; Buruli Ulcer was described in Uganda, in 1970; Kaposi’s sarcoma was described by Dr. Kyalwazi through early immunological studies. Fast forward to 1985, when “Slim disease” was described by Makerere University scientists Nelson Sewankambo and David Serwadda. Subsequently, the 1999 landmark HIVNET 012 study showed that single-dose Nevirapine at the onset of labour and a single dose to the infant led to a 42 percent reduction in maternal to child HIV transmission, providing the developing world with a cheap and simple option to protect thousands of children born by HIV-infected mothers’. MakCHS not only trains for Uganda but for the region, Professor Nakanjako added.

The keynote speech titled, ‘Health Professions Education at Makerere University: Past, Present and Future’ was delivered by Professor Francis Omaswa, Chancellor – Soroti University and Former Executive Director – ACHEST. Professor Omaswa highlighted the best times at Makerere during the 1960s, with a good enabling environment: good funding for grants, generous book allowances, well paid happy teachers from all over the world; high academic standards as well as manageable student numbers. He noted that the University was affected by the political instability of the 70s and 80s, however the situation had improved in the 90s leading to increased number of students. ‘Infrastructure and staff numbers have not kept abreast with student population increase, financing arrangements have not been optimal and amidst governance challenges’, Professor Omaswa said. He recommended that the University and MakCHS have to reposition for social accountability and relevance to the needs of the population; Government has to prioritise Human Capital Development Strategy to plan for the future.

The Conference continued over the next two days with multiple presentations, a poster exhibition and the 20th Matthew Lukwiya Memorial Lecture with a keynote speech by Professor Nelson Sewankambo.

In his presentation, Professor Sewankambo asked, ‘how can we continue to sustainably train health professionals who have courage and fortitude that Dr. Lukwiya and others had demonstrated in their service?’. He called for a mindset change in the health profession characterized by lifelong learning, reflexibility, outward looking, setting high standards and health professionals as activists. Professor Sewankambo raised the following issue that will take the health profession training and Makerere forward in the next century:

  1. build learning institutions from experience that cherish life-long learning
  2. grow stronger and equitable partnerships in-country, region and globally
  3. curriculum change is a necessary evil and shouldn’t be retrogressive
  4. health systems science and interprofessional collaboration
  5. address the barriers and enhance the facilitators for research at universities.

Referencing the Flexner report that was used to shake-up the US Medical Schools in the early 20th century, Professor Sewankambo called for the same in Uganda. He also advised that MakCHS together with other medical schools should define the kind of workforce suitable for our national needs and adapt the training to obtain the desired results. As a parting note he said, ‘sustainability is a significant challenge, especially in unstable political, socio-economic, and technological changes. MakCHS should focus on building national capacity to maintain scholarships even in time of upheavals.