A US philanthropic group announced Thursday it will invest 60 million dollars in a research center for HIV-AIDS and tuberculosis in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal, a province at the heart of a global pandemic of the two diseases.
"The KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH) will be an international center of excellence for research but also for training a whole new generation of scientific leaders in Africa," said Tom Cech of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which is financing the project.
The center will be housed at KwaZulu-Natal University's Nelson Mandela school of medicine in Durban.
South Africa has more residents infected with HIV than any other country in the world.
In 2007, 5.4 million people in South Africa were HIV-positive, representing 17 percent of the global HIV burden.
South Africa also has the fourth-highest rate of tuberculosis in the world after India, China and Indonesia, according to William Makgoba, vice chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which has partnered with HHMI to set up the clinic.
Of the millions of HIV-infected people in South Africa, some 250,000 develop tuberculosis each year.
KwaZulu-Natal province has been especially hard hit by the twin epidemics: 40 percent of adults are infected with HIV, and eight in 10 adults in the province who have tuberculosis also have the virus that causes AIDS.
It was also in the KwaZulu-Natal town of Tugela Ferry in 2005 that researchers spotted what they called "the lethal convergence" of HIV and a drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis.
At a hospital in Tugela Ferry, 44 people who developed extensively drug-resistant (XDR) tuberculosis all had HIV. All but one of the patients died.
"HIV is impacting on the body's immune system and undermining the body's ability to keep TB in check, resulting in a joint epidemic of TB and HIV," said Salim Karim, vice chancellor at KwaZulu-Natal university and head of the Center for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA).
Having a research center at the heart of the HIV and TB co-epidemic will allow scientists to work with "higher quality data because we are able to use samples in the lab after drawing them freshly," said Bruce Walker, an HHMI investigator based in Massachusetts.
K-RITH will also give African scientists what has been a rare opportunity until now: working in and helping Africa, said Thumbi Ndung'u, a native of Kenya who studied at Harvard University and was offered jobs in the United States and Europe, but chose to return to Africa.
Ndung'u told AFP he believed the new center "will make it possible for African scientists to be trained on the African continent, to engage with the communities, which is key to beating the HIV and TB epidemics."