Dr Zilungile Kwitshana, an Immunologist at UKZN and alumnus of Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT), recently received an Honorary Fellowship during MUT’s graduation ceremonies in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the field of medical microbiology.

Kwitshana has distinguished herself in mentoring masters and PhD emerging researchers while ensuring their research projects address problems facing South African communities.

Kwitshana told ukznonline that immunology was an evolving field with very few medical technologists of her day moving to academia. The Honorary Fellowship recognised her progression from medical technology to medical science; transcending barriers and stereotypes.

The Dean of MUT’s Faculty of Natural Sciences, Professor Nokwethemba Ndlazi, said she was proud of Kwitshana who has ‘raised herself to be among the very few prolific academics in the field of medical science with both national and international presence’.

According to Kwitshana, South Africa needs more professionals trained in immunology – the study of the immune system – as the field is the “cornerstone” for every disease process.

In 2011, Kwitshana published one of South Africa’s first papers in the medical journal: BMC Infectious Diseases looking at immunological interactions between HIV and neglected parasitic/tropical diseases (NTD), particularly intestinal worms. This was followed by another commentary publication on the topic published in the world's leading scientific journal: The Lancet.

Kwitshana argued that HIV, malaria and TB had taken centre-stage in medical research. This resulted in parasitic diseases being neglected which happened at a hefty cost as the diseases had an impact in the pathogenesis of “bigger” diseases.  ‘NTDs affect a large number of people at any one point with long term consequences, therefore the cumulative economic and health impact are astronomical.’

Not only were they considered as diseases of the poor, but Kwitshana said NTDs contributed significantly to the morbidity and possibly mortality caused by the other high priority diseases. ‘They are neglected because their disease symptoms are very subtle.’

Kwitshana said in areas where there was poor sanitation and lack of clean water supplies, the environment was conducive for the development of tropical diseases because infected people excrete the eggs into the environment.

‘These eggs contaminate the river or dam water and contaminate the vegetation. If there is a lack of clean water people use the available water sources and are not likely to be able to wash fruit and vegetables to rid the eggs of faecal contamination. One female roundworm can lay more than 200 000 eggs per day, and in under resourced environments, high transmission is inevitable. It ends up becoming a vicious cycle.’

As a result, Kwitshana and the Deputy Director for Communicable Diseases Control formed a task team which is assisting the National Department of Health (DoH) in developing a strategic plan to control parasitic diseases in the country.

Kwitshana said mass treatment for schools, especially in rural areas, was one way of addressing the problem according to guidelines set by the World Health Organization. The task team is advocating the down-scheduling of some of the drugs used to treat parasitic infections as the commonly used Schedule IV drugs need to be administered by a health professional.

Kwitshana is currently supervising two PhD and three Masters Candidates in immunology and co-infection.

author email : memelal@ukzn.ac.za