Catching up with… Gunilla Källenius

wild camp site with mattress on the ground and mosquito net in the middle of the bush with the Niger River in the background

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Gunilla Källenius, professor at Karolinska Institutet and coordinator of the Swedish network for communicable diseases

Gunilla KälleniusWhat has the network done during the year?

 “We have focused on two issues, the government’s new strategy for development research for the coming six years where we have acted to try to increase funding for development research. We have written opinion pieces, approached policy makers, responded to consultations, and tried to influence the design of the strategy. We have worked hard on this, and many people have been involved, which has also meant that we have had many meetings within the network.

“The second issue we have been working on is the Covax programme, not least the issue of displacement effects for work on other infectious diseases in developing countries. For tuberculosis and malaria, for example, there has been a huge decline. There have been problems in getting treatment for diseases. We’ve had many meetings with experts where we’ve tried to understand these crowding out effects.”

At the same time as the covid-19 pandemic, other infectious diseases are also spreading.

“Yes, there are several other major pandemics going on as well. Like tuberculosis and malaria. And on top of that, most people in developing countries still don’t have a vaccine against covid-19. In our part of the world, we have come up with great vaccines and we also have drugs in the pipeline. That intensity of work on covid-19 contrasts terribly with work on other infectious diseases in poor countries.”

What do these displacement effects mean?

“The effect of devoting so much attention to covid-19 means that people do not come to the clinics for testing, treatment and prevention. The treatment of TB is ten years behind where it was before covid-19. We are also trying to communicate and work on that. In our network we have experts on Covax and we have a very fruitful discussion about this.”

Surely it is really a matter of fairly simple and inexpensive measures?

“Yes, it is simple measures like distributing malaria nets that have not been implemented and that have had major consequences. At the same time, the pandemic means so many other things, such as children not being able to go to school and girls being married off.”

What do you see as the big issues for 2022?

“We haven’t specified, we expect to hold a first meeting in January. But we will certainly continue to engage on these two issues. We can’t really say yet what form that will take. Many experts on communicable diseases are very busy now.

Yet another effect of the pandemic.

“Our network is largely made up of experts and scientists and the last two years have been an extremely intense period for them. Doctors and scientists, everyone is tired. At the same time, it’s been very, very interesting. For example, the speed in developing the vaccines. One can compare that with the lack of vaccines for the old diseases. The covid-19 pandemic has raised questions about global responsibility that hopefully can spill over to other diseases and pandemics.

What issues should be researched more?

“I’m a board member of the World Infection Fund and we recently published a report that addressed the research needs. There is so much needed: vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, new health systems approaches. There is a lack of tools at all levels, both for the three major infectious diseases of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, and for other even more neglected tropical diseases.

In the case of Covax, how are we doing?

“I really have no idea. We don’t have much reason to be proud of what is being done in our part of the world. It’s a selfish perspective, but maybe there’s now a greater awareness of how important it is for everyone to have access to the vaccine.”

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