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Minister Caroline Gennez gets introduced to ITM

On 10 February 2023, Minister of Development Cooperation and Major Cities, Caroline Gennez, visited the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp.

Minister of Development Cooperation and Major Cities, Caroline Gennez, visited the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp today. Minister Gennez got acquainted with the institute's innovative research with a broad societal impact and its international partnerships.

For many years, ITM has worked closely with institutional partners in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Supported by the Directorate-general for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid (DGD), these partnerships focus mainly on institutional capacity building. “Our work to help improve health worldwide and be better prepared for infectious disease threats critically depends on partnerships with scientific and public health institutions worldwide”, says ITM director Marc-Alain Widdowson. “Thanks to DGD we are able to exchange expertise with these partners, and attract high potential students from all over the world to Antwerp to make longstanding, impactful scientific relationships.”

After a warm welcome, there was an extensive meeting between Minister Gennez and Director Widdowson. Among other things, they discussed ITM's international collaborations and scientific projects, the policy objectives of Minister Gennez and the institute's future challenges.

Towards a world without sleeping sickness

During a tour around ITM's buildings, the minister got an insight into the sleeping sickness project. Five years ago, Belgian Development Cooperation, the Congolese government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave green light to ITM and its Congolese partners to eliminate sleeping sickness by 2030. They are pooling their expertise and working with scientific institutions and implementing agencies to detect and treat high-risk patients faster. During her visit, Minister Gennez saw tsetse flies, which can transmit sleeping sickness, and received a scientific demonstration of the diagnostic test that detects the disease. ITM is the only global manufacturer of sleeping sickness tests and distributes between one and two million of them every year.

"The work of ITM is impressive to see. Together with Congolese and international partners, and with the support of Belgian Development Cooperation, the institute has managed to drastically reduce the annual number of sleeping sickness cases. But the disease still claims victims, especially in the DRC. Just because the disease is now much less prevalent, it does not mean the battle is won. Only if we continue to join forces will sleeping sickness be a thing of the past by 2030," said Minister Gennez. "Belgian expertise in healthcare in general, and tropical medicine in particular, is highly valued abroad. Our country has a rock-solid reputation. That is really something to be proud of," she added.

Minister meets future world health experts

After the tour, Minister Gennez was introduced to several ITM students from the DRC, Ghana, Uganda, Cambodia and the Philippines. These students are completing specialised master's programmes in clinical sciences, global One Health and public health or conduct scientific research via a PhD. The training scholarships are funded by DGD. The minister spoke to them about their background, their motivation and how they experience studying and living in Antwerp. Every year, ITM trains more than 500 international students who then go on to work for foreign NGOs, for the government of their home country, in medical positions or in academia.

"Progress in science begins and ends with sharing knowledge, across national borders. I am therefore delighted to see so many students here, from all corners of the world. The medical knowledge and experience they gain here will be passed on to others in their home countries, or to future colleagues in international NGOs or universities. This is how, as a small country, we still make a big difference," said Minister Gennez. Finally, Minister Gennez talked with ITM scientists about the impact of COVID-19 on maternal and child care, urban health, malaria surveillance and the universal access to healthcare and medical products.

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