Unilever Colworth Prize Lecture 2021: Professor Azra Ghani

Posted on May 27, 2021   by Alexandra Kubiakowska-Welch

The Unilever Colworth Prize, sponsored by the Unilever Safety and Environmental Assurance Center is awarded annually to an individual that has made an outstanding contribution to translational microbiology. At the Microbiology Society’s Annual Conference Online 2021, this year’s winner, Professor Azra Ghani from Imperial College London, presented her talk titled ‘Getting back on track: the tools and strategies needed to achieve malaria elimination and eradication’.

© Mark Henley, World Health Organization, 2017

Professor Azra Ghani began her talk by thanking the Microbiology Society for awarding her the Prize stating that she was honoured to receive it on behalf of her research group and acknowledged colleagues both past and present.

She then gave a summary of the nature of her presentation – how her group had used mathematic modelling to inform malaria elimination and medication strategies.

Outlining where we are as a society in relation to malaria today, Professor Ghani discussed how there has been significant progress over the past 20 years in reducing the global burden of the disease. This, she said, was due to the dramatic investment and funds received from the year 2000 onwards resulting in a near 30% decrease in case of incidences, a 60% reduction in mortality and elimination of the disease in 21 countries. Despite this reduction in numbers, Professor Ghani continued by stressing that malaria is still very much a major public health concern, particularly in Africa, with over 213 million reported cases in 2019 alone.

Moving on to discuss elimination versus control strategies, Professor Ghani then described the huge steps in progress in eliminating malaria outside of Africa. This success has been attributed to a renewed commitment from the national government to use strong surveillance to track cases.

For those countries that still face the challenge of combatting malaria, tools such as the insecticides used to spray on bed nets and walls are lacking. Other challenges included poor access to diagnosis and treatment, as well as limited access to funding.

Professor Ghani then went on to discuss how modelling plays a part in achieving malaria elimination and eradication. She shared an insight into the work she has been doing which focuses on understanding the potential impact of different interventions and assessing new tools that can ideally be set up to reduce the transmission of the parasite. A particular emphasis has been placed on simulating the transmission of the parasite by focusing on Plasmodium falciparum between mosquitoes and people as a continuous cycle. She outlined how her research group is also looking at the earliest stages of mosquito development (the larval stage) and how this relates to the environment, particularly when it comes to rainfall, which is a seasonal driver when it comes to the patterns of mosquitoes and their behaviour, as well as the wider ecology that drives the environment’s ability to host the mosquito population.  

A key driver of Professor Ghani’s research is to combine the knowledge gathered from these transmission models to then develop individual strategies for intervention. In her presentation, she described how layering this led to her being able to determine the best options for combined interventions.

Later in her talk, Professor Ghani referenced a case study where her research group had worked with the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) on the National Malaria Elimination Program in Zambia, which was launched in 2016. The plan featured some outputs on the modelling work and impact that could be achieved by the Country in terms of where to allocate available resources. By continuing to engage with key stakeholders and many other programs, Professor Ghani explained how these results are updated to reflect new issues that may arise over time.

Concluding the Prize Lecture, Professor Ghani referred back to the core purpose of modelling and product and intervention development – to understand the science behind new interventions, run and develop new models, and be open to collaborate in developing tools to see how these modelling outputs can inform target product profiles. She wrapped up her talk by stating that mathematical models are being used across a broad spectrum of areas to inform malaria policy at a global, regional and country level.

To learn more about Professor Azra Ghani’s research read our recent Q&A online.

You can view Professor Ghani’s full Prize Lecture below.