Fears over health units
South Africa's ability to combat HIV, tuberculosis and cancer could be in jeopardy as funding cuts force the Medical Research Council to review its programmes.
Further details have emerged of the proposed restructuring of the council's operations, which might include the closure of two of its food safety and security research units - the Nutritional Intervention Unit and the Programme on Microtoxins and Experimental Carcinogenesis.
Other units that might be affected include the SA Aids Vaccine Initiative, the Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases Unit, the Diabetes Research Group, the Malaria Research Programme, the Oncology Research Unit, the Tuberculosis Epidemiology and Intervention Research Unit, and the Unit for Clinical and Biomedical Tuberculosis Research.
Though not all of these units are expected to shut down, staff cuts are in the pipeline - a number of workers received letters detailing a proposed retrenchment process yesterday.
Medical Research Council president, Professor Salim Karim earlier this week said priorities had shifted.
"We are prioritising the top 10 causes of death and top 10 causes of death and disease."
According to a list provided by Karim, HIV was the number one cause of death in the country (31.6%) and tuberculosis was fifth (5.6%).
Karim this week insisted that HIV research would remain one of the council's biggest priorities.
Karim yesterday failed to respond to questions.
The council provides the University of Cape Town's drug discovery unit - which recently discovered a possible cure for tuberculosis - 6% of its funding.
On Wednesday, Karim tried to allay staff's retrenchment concerns. However, a circular issued to all staff yesterday, Karim outlined plans for the research council's new structure.
It included a letter about proposed retrenchments by human resources manager Russell Edwards.
"Please note that the council is not proposing a withdrawal from research in cancer, nutrition or Aids vaccines. We are, however, looking forward to finding suitable alternatives," wrote Karim.
"At this stage, funding and support in these areas are proposed to occur mainly through partnerships with universities."
The letter reveals that four separate tuberculosis research units are to be reduced.
One medical researcher said staff were furious.
"On Wednesday, we were told not to panic. A day later, we receive retrenchment notices."
Wits University reproductive health and HIV institute associate professor Francois Venter said tuberculosis was one of the country's biggest killers.
"We need as much data and research as possible. HIV and tuberculosis are among the country's top medical research priorities."
The latest General Household Survey by Statistics South Africa revealed that 42% of the country's "poorest of the poor" had inadequate access to food.