A conversation with Vittorio Colizzi

In a complex system is fundamental to study, know and analyse the predominant diseases in order to find remedies and cultural backgrounds on them. The reality has to be “touched” and we don’t have to fear it. The touched topics of this conversation were so much real and current that GG students have often joined the presentation and were involved in it. This health travel has been possible thanks to Vittorio Colizzi.


He is a Professor of Immunology and the director of the UNESCO’s chair on Biotechnologies. He coordinated and joined lots of projects in Africa: AIDS prevention, “Families First Africa, nosocomial infections from HIV in Libya, Bengasi, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameron, Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone.

The discussion focused on some diseases and challenges related to them: AIDS and Ebola are two examples of them. The link with the governance concerned to the prevention measures adopted for innovation and the search for new treatments.

For a real impact on society you need a good governance, a functional feedback is fundamental in the field for health research. A great parenthesis has been open on the project “Horizon 2020”. It is the biggest EU research and an innovation programme, in particular it promises more breakthroughs, discoveries and world-firsts by taking great ideas from the lab to the market. The guest has underlined the nanotechnologies, advanced materials and biotechnology’s area. In Horizon 2020, biotechnology was introduced as a Key Enabling Technology (KET), together with other KET’s, have to maintain their global leadership position for the benefit of European citizens. 

In 2014 Ebolavirus has been the responsible of thousands of lives’ infections and deaths. Ebolavirus has one member virus and four of these cause Ebola virus diseases in humans (EDV): a type of haemorrhagic fever having a very high case fatality rate. Firstly, it spread in southern Sudan (1976) and after in Zaire. The name Ebolavirus is derived from the Ebola River in Zaire (now the Republic of Congo). From a small and poor location to a continental emergency. During the discussion about the environment that makes easier the spreading of the disease, the guest underlined the connection between civil war and Ebola. Over 32 sub-Saharan African states that have experienced internal armed conflict since 1976, nearly a third have also had Ebola outbreaks. Civil war enables the spread of disease, especially viruses as stubborn as Ebola, by destroying physical and personal infrastructures.Sierra Leone’s medical infrastructure was similarly devastated by civil war. The civil war ended in 2001, destroying the already poor health infrastructure of the country and thirteen years later, the largest Ebola epidemic recorded completely overwhelmed what was left of an already fragile healthcare system. A 2008 survey of Sierra Leonean hospitals found that most had either no or interrupted oxygen and electricity and half had no running water. 

In such complicated environment, we need help and something faster and more dynamic to help people. RRI (responsible research and innovation) is an approach that anticipates and assess potential implications with regard to research and foster a sustainable innovation. RRI implies that societal actors (researchers, citizens, policy makers, business, third sector organisations and so on), work together during the whole research and innovation process and its outcomes with the values, needs and expectations of society. “Implement” is the key of action of the “Science with and for Society” objective. Actions need to be directed to gender, public engagement, open access, ethical issues, education and governance. In many cases, inter-trans disciplinary solutions will have to be developed.

Someone has to start in making practice these wonderful ideas because sometimes “facts are more important than words”. Europe is setting course for a resource-efficient and sustainable economy. The goal is to achieve a more innovative, faster and low emission economy that allows countries to work hard on health research, helping damaged countries which need moral and financial assistance. To achieve this, the European Commission has set a “Bio-economy Strategy”; the core of these ideas converges on a fairer internal market, a resilient energy union and an effective governance.

Another disease where culture and health are strongly connected is the African swine fever (ASF). This transboundary animal disease (TAD) can be spread by live or dead pigs, domestic or wild species. Transmission can also occur via contaminated feed or shoes, clothes, vehicles and knives. There is no approved vaccine against ASF, unlike classical swine fever. It has had a serious socio-economic impact on farming sector and international trade of animals. The EU is including strict control measures including biosecurity, culling of infected pigs in order to control the spread of the disease. In contrast with the European way of monitor the spread, the other countries can’t circumscribe the epidemics because those measures can go against their culture and way of living.

All in all, we can affirm that global health is not only in the hands of technology or vaccines, culture and traditions are involved too. The strategy that governments are trying to use focuses on the respect of someone else’s costumes with a rational way of thinking.


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