North-West University is raising the health profile in Southern Africa

There are words that tie the tongue in knots. They confound the abilities of the learned; they separate the novice from the expert at spelling bees. They even change lives. At the North-West University (NWU), one of these words is “pharmacoepidemiology”, and it refers to a field that is enriching the health of the population of southern Africa.

First, let us define the term. Pharmacoepidemiology is the study of how medications are used and what their effects on large populations are, helping us to understand the benefits, risks and patterns of drug use in real-world settings. The importance of this in an African context cannot be overstated, especially with regard to the epidemiology of this region, which is the science of understanding how what we are exposed to and what we do affect the overall health of a society.

The African region has a unique epidemiology with increasingly high rates of infectious and non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including cancer, diabetes, hypertension and mental health disorders. Healthcare systems are fragmented. Public health facilities across African countries are largely in a poor condition, with a lack of infrastructure for effective healthcare delivery, and a general absence of drug information systems. “African countries face varying challenges relating to access to medicines, costs, drug effectiveness, morbidity patterns and rational prescribing,” explains Prof Johanita Burger from the research entity Medicine Usage in South Africa (MUSA) at the Faculty of Health Sciences of the NWU.

Burger’s research activities focus on pharmacoepidemiology, and also on drug utilisation research and pharmacoeconomics, which are disciplines that delve into the utilisation, effects, costs and outcomes of medicines in real-world populations. These disciplines provide valuable evidence that reflects the complexities and diversity of the healthcare landscape.

Burger says: “Africa is facing a double burden of infectious and chronic diseases, necessitating the need to ensure everyone has access to appropriate medications. However, the continent is challenged by several obstacles in ensuring access to medications, including excessive reliance on foreign countries for medicines, circulation of fake and counterfeit medications, a limited healthcare workforce, absence of sustainable health financing mechanisms, inadequate infrastructure and technical expertise, and insufficient investment in research and development.”

One of the ways the NWU is addressing this is through its commitment to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), of which SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) is especially relevant in this context. SDG 3 aims to ensure healthy lives and the promotion of well-being for all people of all ages. MUSA has established itself as a crucial role player in creating a sustainable and safe environment for the use of medicine to positively impact the health profile of the southern African community.

Burger explains that one way of facilitating a turnaround in the health fortunes of the region is by identifying, promoting and securing new avenues to medicinal resources. “We need to prioritise efforts and initiatives to strengthen access to medicines, infrastructure and health systems.”

By conducting relevant and high-quality research on the appropriate use of medicine in the public and private healthcare sectors in southern Africa and by building the capacity of resources in the safe use of medicine through collaborative partnerships and empowerment, MUSA is making significant inroads into aiding access to quality medicine.

MUSA also aims to advance the knowledge of relevant target groups through the delivery of innovative products and solutions.

The pronunciation of the word may be puzzling and phonetically it is challenging, but there is no doubt that “pharmacoepidemiology” should form part of every conversation on medicine in search of sustainable solutions. In one word, it is a “wonder”.


Prof Johanita Burger

Submitted on Mon, 07/17/2023 - 15:14