Charles Shey Wiysonge was appointed Director of Cochrane South Africa from December 2016. In this eight instalment of the 'Meet the Editor' series we found out more about his background, career path, and vision for Cochrane South Africa. This article was first published in the Cochrane South Africa newsletter, Volume 18, No. 2 December 2016 and republished here with kind permission from Cochrane South Africa.
What is your personal background?
I was born of two amazing parents in a village called Nseh in the Kingdom of Nso, in North West Cameroon. I have a brother and two sisters. Values were very important to my parents. They never went to school but taught us to excel in everything, to make collaboration a central theme in our lives, and to care for self and others. These are the same values that my wife and I try to pass on to our four children: Kathleen Bime-Fomonyuy, Charles Berinyuy, Leinyuy Ashley and Fonyuy Sandra. I completed my schooling and medical school in Cameroon. I did postgraduate training in both the UK (University of Cambridge, University of Oxford and Cochrane UK) and South Africa (University of Cape Town).
Could you give some brief highlights of your career path?
My career has been nothing short of amazing. I became a full professor at Stellenbosch University in 2013. My previous work experience includes Deputy Director of the Centre for Evidencebased Health Care at Stellenbosch University; Manager of the Vaccines for Africa Initiative and Chief Research Officer at the University of Cape Town; Senior Scientist at Cochrane South Africa; Chief Research Officer at UNAIDS, Geneva; and Deputy Director, National Expanded Programme on Immunisation, Cameroon. I’ve published more than 100 research articles and serve on many international scientific and advisory committees. Finally, the President of the Republic of Cameroon decorated me with the National Order of Valour, the highest honour in Cameroon, in the category ‘Chevalier’.
You have already had a long involvement in evidence-based health care (EBHC) – what attracted you and how has that interest led to you taking a leadership role in Cochrane in the African region?
When I completed my postgraduate training in epidemiology in 2000 my dream was to be a policymaker, who would make a difference in poor and vulnerable communities. And I made a very good start at that. However, in 2000 Prof. Bongani Mayosi sent me an advert for a new Cochrane fellowship. The Aubrey Sheiham fellowship aimed to develop EBHC leaders from low and middleincome countries. I applied for it but never took my application seriously. Sometime later I received an email from Jimmy Volmink, Director of Cochrane SA. His first sentence was something like this “Dear Charles, Thank you for your application. We received many excellent applications for this fellowship”. I stopped reading and deleted the email because I expected that the next sentence would be something like “We are sorry you were not selected”. At the time, accessing internet at a cyber café in Cameroon was expensive and we did not have internet access in the office. A few days later I went back to my trash folder and recovered Jimmy’s email. Jimmy’s next sentence congratulated me for earning the award. The rest is history. I was the first Aubrey Sheiham fellow and in 2001 – 2002 received advanced training and mentorship in systematic reviews and meta-analysis at Cochrane UK and Oxford University. I was blessed with supervision and mentorship from EBHC leaders such as Ian Chalmers, Phil Alderson, and Peter Brocklehurst amongst others. I also published my first paper in a scientific journal (The Lancet), with Jimmy Volmink as senior author. Within two years, I metamorphosed from a health manager/policy maker to a researcher. Since then I have been involved in the activities of 13 Cochrane entities, including Cochrane SA.
What is your vision for Cochrane SA going forward?
Cochrane SA already has a very beautiful vision that “Health care decision making within Africa will be informed by highquality, timely and relevant research evidence.” Living this vision, Cochrane SA has become a recognised giant in EBHC in Africa and beyond. This is evidenced by the recent Special South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Award given to Prof. Volmink, founding Director of Cochrane SA and the Father of EBHC in Africa. I want to build on this momentum. My vision is to see Cochrane SA as the vanguard in improving national and continental healthcare decision making through knowledge synthesis and dissemination. We will do this by employing strategic thinking to move forward, identifying and developing talent, inspiring a shared purpose and values, and building and maintaining sound relationships.
How do you see the EBHC field developing in this region?
EBHC has grown exponentially on our continent in the last two decades becoming an everyday word. The best is yet to come. EBHC will grow even more on this continent, and our role will come from focusing on two of the SAMRC’s strategic goals, i.e. leading the generation of new knowledge and facilitating its translation into policies and practices to improve health (Goal 2) and building capacity for the long-term sustainability of health research (Goal 4). A focus of EBHC in Africa should be implementation science, i.e. understanding not only what is and isn’t working, but how and why implementation is going right or wrong, and testing approaches to improve it. Health systems often fail to optimally use evidence in decision making, resulting in increased mortality, reduced quality of life and lost productivity. This gap between evidence and practice combined with declining resources creates an ethical urgency for implementation science, to enhance returns on research investments.
What are your personal interests/hobbies/activities beyond Cochrane and EBHC?
I enjoy spending time with and having conversations with my family. I also enjoy having a drink with friends, and going for a walk with a friend.