U of S Researchers in the running for Grand Challenges projects for East Africa

Two researchers at the University of Saskatchewan working on different projects in East Africa have thrown their hats into the ring for one of the $100,000 grants from the Canadian Rising Stars in Global Health program of Grand Challenges Canada.

Grand Challenges Canada is an independent not-for-profit organization that funds research to improve the health and well-being of people in the developing world. Funding decisions are based on peer review, but public support is also considered through online voting at their website, www.grandchallenges.ca. Up to 20 grants will be awarded.

One U of S researcher in this year's competition is Denis Paskal Okinyo-Owiti, a postdoctoral fellow in plant sciences at the College of Agriculture and Bioresources. Owiti aims to develop an effective sand fly repellent using natural products from medicinal plants that can be incorporated into commonly used beauty products such as moisturizers.

His previous work experience with plant extracts in combating malaria-infected mosquitoes is now being applied to sand flies. These insects carry leishmaniasis, the second-deadliest parasitic killer after malaria.

"We feel that [leishmaniasis] has been neglected," Owiti says.

Leishmaniasis affects tropical and sub-tropical regions, putting roughly 350 million people at risk in 88 countries. Climate change has caused the disease to spread into North America, with cases identified in Mexico and Texas in recent years.

"Due to lack of vaccine, toxicity of and resistance to the current drugs of choice, we need to look into other ways of controlling the disease," Owiti says.

The other contender from the U of S is Pammla Petrucka, associate professor in the College of Nursing. She and her team will offer training and accommodation to youth who would otherwise be living on the street in Arusha, Tanzania. Using donated hotel space, the program will give youth the skills needed to find jobs in tourism, Tanzania's largest industry.

"You can't be healthy if you don't have support, decent housing, clean water, and all those other basic needs," explains Petrucka, who has worked with street youth in Tanzania for over seven years. "We just need to provide them with those elements and then help them move forward."

The year-long initiative will comprise three rotations of eight youth — four male and four female — each on a four-month rotation. The services and skills offered by the program will contribute to the overall health of the young people who participate.

"This project will provide youth with the opportunity to learn front-line hospitality skills, guest relations, and food preparation, while gaining self-confidence and much-needed experience," Petrucka says. They will also upgrade their education, language and literacy, and computer skills.

Grand Challenges Canada, together with the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), delivers the Canadian government's Development Innovation Fund (DIF).

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