THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa
JOHANNESBURG - From February 11 to 15 we met as a subset of the board in Accra, Ghana, at the headquarters of the International Network for the Demographic Evaluation of Population and Their Health (Indepth) to manage the leadership transition of Indepth.

Indepth is a life science institution which possesses a unique value proposition propelled and led by the south for the south.

Osman Sankoh, who led Indepth for 10 years, is leaving at the end of March to take over the post of statistician-general of Sierra Leone.

Transition is indeed a constant in politics, institutions and among peoples. Indepth will be celebrating its 20th anniversary, to be hosted in South Africa in October, where these pioneering scientists from the south will be discussing and thinking through the futures of their populations.

In about four decades almost 90percent of the population of the world will be in this region that Indepth covers, wherein every third citizen will be African.

This is the significance of Indepth to both Agenda 2063 - the Africa we want and to the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 Agenda.

Indepth is renowned for its science, which is driven through an interrelated network of research institutions in Africa, Asia and Oceania. It spreads over 19 countries and prides its operations across 49 health and demographic surveillance sites (HDSS). Established 20 years ago, Indepth has covered almost 4million people through longitudinal inspection of their health and socio-economic status. Their data are then linked and associated with the health facility information.

Indepth adopts a longitudinal approach in a uniform collection of a core set of measurements across the HDSS sites and reports quarterly on not just health metrics, but goes on to report on pregnancies and their outcomes, cause of death, newborn births and deaths, maternal deaths, morbidity, socio-economic characteristics, migration, fertility, older children, adolescents and adult health.

There are also more sophisticated research projects within particular focus areas. These include clinical trials, genetics, clinical interventions, equity and access, HIV/Aids, maternal newborn and child health measurement, vaccination and environmental impact on health.

Projects can be multisite or take place within a single site, depending on desired scale and their relevance.

What then is the policy relevance of Indepth?

Indepth provides a scientific platform for ongoing longitudinal health and demographic tracking with a global reach, operating in different health systems and cultures with varied epidemiology that offers a unique medium for the study of the impact of policy and practice, the testing of population-level indicators, and the development and validation of effective interventions for population-level impact.

Indepth offers:

* Opportunity to leverage the collective value of quantitative and qualitative data across HDSS sites and conduct multisite research and surveillance through effective cross-site collaboration and timely data collection.

* Ability to capitalise on established links between HDSS sites and health and other policymakers to magnify research findings and enable evidence-based decisions.

* Engage community of scientists, technical experts to shape and execute research projects and policy engagements.

* Use low-cost researchers (MScs and PhDs) via training partnerships with universities.

South Africa on its part contributes significantly to this field of science in health.

The Department of Science and Technology under the leadership of Minister Naledi Pandor identified the need for sponsoring this important science. They committed up to R260million to South Africa Population Research Network, which is headed by Professor Mark Collins of the University of Witwatersrand.

This programme will have a longitudinal database of half a million people and should like the South African National Income Dynamics Study to service the scientific understanding of the health challenges of South Africans and add to the essential global body of knowledge that addresses these challenges as articulated in South Africa's National Development Plan.

Indepth is looking for a new home - perhaps one of the South African institutions could offer to host.

* Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general and former head of Statistics South Africa.

** The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Independent Group

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