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September 2002




Dr Terry Besselaar and Prof Barry Schoub


A NICD scientist at work.When you consider that 70% of the burden of ill health in sub-Saharan Africa is due to communicable diseases you will recognise the need for a National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). The NICD was established in Johannesburg on 1st April 2002 to play the key public health role of monitoring communicable diseases in South Africa and to be a resource of knowledge and expertise in important infectious diseases of the southern African region.


The NICD was initially founded as the Poliomyelitis Research Foundation (PRF), in 1948. The PRF was founded in response to the extensive epidemics of poliomyelitis that were severely affecting South Africa in order to support research into poliomyelitis with the hope of developing a protective vaccine. Other clinically important viruses were subsequently also investigated. These included coxsackie and echoviruses, measles, rubella, smallpox, rabies and herpes viruses as well as viruses causing hepatitis, respiratory and arthropod-borne infections. A unit for the diagnosis and characterisation of African haemorrhagic fever viruses and a Virus Cancer Research Unit were also established.

In 1976, the laboratories of the PRF were transferred to the State Department of Health and the National Institute for Virology (NIV) was born. In the 26 years of its existence, the NIV became a major role player in global health. Functionally the NIV could be divided into two major components, the clinical diagnostic division, comprising the virus isolation and serology laboratories, and the research division. The latter evolved over the years into three main units - the HIV/AIDS unit, the Special Pathogens unit and the Molecular Virology unit.

Over the last decade the Institute's biggest research activity as well the region's major infectious disease has been HIV/AIDS. The HIV/AIDS unit has made great progress in contributing to scientific knowledge of the virus, its behaviour and the complexities of the virus-host interaction. In addition, this unit has played a very significant role in the activities of the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI) and has achieved international recognition.

The Special Pathogens Unit (SPU) has played a critically important public health role internationally by being at the forefront of the diagnosis and response to many of the viral haemorrhagic fever outbreaks in Africa and Asia. The unit has contributed significantly to a better understanding of the pathogenesis and ecology of viruses such as Ebola, Crimean - Congo haemorrhagic fever, Marburg, Rift Valley fever and Lassa fever - related arenaviruses. The SPU is also responsible for the diagnosis of rabies and rabies-related infection in humans. The unit is recognized as a World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Viral Haemorrhagic Fevers and Arboviruses.

The Molecular Virology Unit has also played a major role in contributing to public health, both at national and international levels. The polio laboratory, which is the regional reference laboratory for WHO, has provided an essential function for monitoring the progress of the poliovirus eradication programme. Surveillance and molecular characterisation of influenza viruses has assisted in the formulation of influenza vaccines specific for the southern hemisphere. Important contributions to the molecular biology of Respiratory Syncytial virus (RSV) and hepatitis B virus have also been made.

National Institute for Communicable Diseases

NICD scientistThe NICD was established in April this year and consists of the former National Institute for Virology together with the microbiology, parasitology and entomology laboratories from the former South African Institute for Medical Research.


The mission of the NICD is to provide a centralized integrated resource of expertise and facilities to contribute to the prevention and management of communicable diseases in South Africa, southern Africa and the African continent. The objectives are:

1) To carry out public health surveillance of communicable diseases.
2) To collect, analyse and interpret communicable diseases data.
3) To monitor for the emergence of new infectious diseases and for the re-appearance of previously controlled infectious diseases.
4) To detect outbreaks or epidemics at an early stage in order to be able to timeously and effectively respond to them, or to anticipate imminent outbreaks or epidemics by investigation, research and analysis of data.
5) To engage in directed and relevant research to answer questions related to regional public health communicable diseases problems.
6) To establish formal structures for the rapid and continuous dissemination of data and information generated from NICD to all who need to know.
7) To build capacity in communicable diseases nationally and regionally.
8) To provide a reference function to communicable diseases laboratories.

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