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Sheetal Silal wins top NSTF award

by Kerry Haggard


The winner of the 2020/2021 TW Kambule-NSTF Emerging Researcher Award is professor Sheetal Silal, Associate Professor of the Department of Statistical Sciences, University of Cape Town (UCT); and Director: Modelling and Simulation Hub, Africa, Faculty of Science, UCT; and Honorary Visiting Research Fellow: Oxford University, UK. She received the Award for her contribution through combining knowledge from biology, clinical medicine, public health and economics to develop mathematical disease models to help shape health policy and improve the health of the people.

Sheetal Silal with representatives from proSET (Professionals in SET), a sector of the NSTF representing professional bodies and learned societies.

There has never been greater potential for infectious diseases to spread than right now. Prof Silal’s previous body of work using mathematical modelling to create and support strategies dealing with malaria, TB, HIV, syphilis and pertussis provided the perfect backdrop for her work over the last 18 months in modelling the spread and management of Covid-19.

As Associate Professor in the Department of Statistical Sciences and Director of the Modelling and Simulation Hub, Africa (MASHA), in the Faculty of Science at the University of Cape Town, and Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at Oxford University, prof Silal explains that the application of mathematical disease modelling goes beyond theoretical mathematics.

“It combines knowledge from biology, clinical medicine, public health and economics to develop models to assist decision-makers with controlling disease,” she says. “The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of these models in supporting government policy, from advising on the number of hospital beds required to projecting mortality. Mathematical modelling is fast becoming an invaluable tool in shaping health policy and saving lives.”

Prof Silal founded MASHA in 2017, to co-ordinate her modelling research activities, and to facilitate networking and training among African modellers. In 2018, prof Silal and MASHA were asked by the National Department of Health to partner with the Malaria Elimination Initiative (MEI), the San Francisco Global Health Group and the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI). They had to develop an investment case to estimate the cost of eliminating malaria in South Africa, and to generate economic evidence highlighting the benefits of doing so.

With the work funded by MEI, CHAI providing data collection, and MEI providing economic analysis, prof Silal synthesised the data to provide scenario modelling to demonstrate the cost and benefit of eliminating malaria. In the following year’s budget, then Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni allocated funding towards the elimination of malaria, including cross-border work in Mozambique, to ensure the project’s efficacy.

MASHA was also asked to support the Department of Health’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic through the development of mathematical models, and is a member of the South African Covid-19 Modelling Consortium, a group of experts that provides technical support to decision-makers responding to the pandemic.

“While all members of the consortium contributed to the conceptual development and evaluation of models, my primary role has been to develop the foundational model and programme, run the current model and present modelling findings,” she says. “I have also extended the suite of models to include demographic stratification and spatial complexity. MASHA has also developed several user interfaces to present our output and analysis in more universally accessible ways.”

Looking to the future, prof Silal emphasises the need for investing in developing greater capacity for disease modelling in developing countries, as diverse contexts and cultures play a significant role in its outcomes.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how few disease modelling professionals operate on the African continent, just as much as it has emphasised how important it is that health policy be informed by local culture. I’m looking forward to finding ways to develop that capacity,” she says.

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