British expertise advances Lao research

Prof Paul Newton has spent the last 20 years carrying out ground-breaking tropical medicine research at the Lao Oxford Mahosot Hospital Wellcome Research Unit (LOMWRU) in Vientiane, which he founded.
This week he returns to the UK, where he will continue his research work as a professor at the University of Oxford. The collaboration between Mahosot Hospital and Oxford University began in 1999. Paul started work with the Head of the Microbiology Laboratory, the late Dr Rattanaphone Phetsouvanh, and a small team of five

Associate Prof. Dr Bounkong Syhavong (centre) poses together with Prof. Paul Newton (left) Associate Prof. Mayfong Mayxay (right) at the awarding ceremony.

researchers, including Associate Prof Mayfong Mayxay who is now the Vice President of the University of Health Sciences. LOMWRU is embedded within the Microbiology Laboratory of Mahosot Hospital, directed by Dr Manivanh Vongsouvath.
Over the past two decades the Unit has gone from strength to strength under Paul’s leadership, and is now composed of a team of 90 project and government staff. Prof. Newton has developed a highly productive programme of research that is recognised internationally and, at its core, has the goal of improving the health of people in the Lao PDR and beyond.
The development of the diagnostic capability at Mahosot Hospital and the output from the research unit has raised awareness of leading infectious diseases in the country, such as melioidosis and scrub typhus, and informed policy decisions made by the Ministry of Health.
He has provided training opportunities for many talented young Lao researchers who have gone on to get postgraduate degrees at international universities. In recognition of the work he led at LOMWRU he was awarded the Third Class Medal of Labour by Lao government which was presented by the Minister of Health, Associate Prof. Dr Bounkong Syhavong.
Prof. Newton is a world leader in research into the problem of falsified and substandard medicines, and after his return to the UK on June 13, he will continue this work, through which he will retain strong links with Laos and the region.
Prof. Newton answers via email Vientiane Times journalist’s questions on how to improve the field of research in Laos.
Q: You have spent more than two decades in Laos, what do you think is the state of research in this country?
A: Laos has made great strides in developing public health research capacity over the last 20 years with a growing cadre of younger, enthusiastic doctors who are skilled in research. This has led to an expanding and vital evidence base that is informing decisions for Lao public health policy and implementation. If the momentum is maintained, the future is bright for expanding human and technical capacity, with more evidence-based decisions based on Lao data and improved health of the people of the Lao PDR.
Q: Is there any scope for improvement of research methods in Laos?
A: Despite the significant progress, there remains a great need for many more skilled technicians, physicians, scientists to work to help answer the key public health questions facing Laos and also systems for laboratory management and supporting and funding research. There is also a need for teams, including health economists, to work on synthesising and analysing Lao and international evidence for Lao health problems to inform policy and implementation decisions. More investment by the Lao government in funding health research would be of great assistance in building Lao capacity further.
Q: What do you think about Lao researchers’ ability? Can they undertake research projects without foreign experts?
A: There are now very capable Lao researchers. The need for foreign experts has declined and will hopefully decline further.
Q: In the coming years, what area do you think Laos should focus on for improving its research methods?
A: For the coming years, I feel that capacity building, especially for scientists, laboratory technicians and doctors for routine diagnosis and research, especially in the provinces, with support for research audit and governance and teams for translation of evidence into policy, are the key steps.

By Xayxana Leukai

(Latest Update June 14, 2019)

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