Introduction: Research is an essential tool in facing the challenges of scaling up interventions and improving access to services. As in many other countries, the translation of research evidence into drug policy action in Tanzania is often constrained by poor communication between researchers and policy decision-makers, individual perceptions or attitudes towards the drug and hesitation by some policy decision-makers to approve change when they anticipate possible undesirable repercussions should the policy change as proposed. Internationally, literature on the role of researchers on national antimalarial drug policy change is limited.
Objectives: To describe the (a) role of researchers in producing evidence that influenced the Tanzanian government replace chloroquine (CQ) with sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine (SP) as the first-line drug and the challenges faced in convincing policy-makers, general practitioners, pharmaceutical industry and the general public on the need for change (b) challenges ahead before a new drug combination treatment policy is introduced in Tanzania.
Methods: In-depth interviews were held with national-level policy-makers, malaria control programme managers, pharmaceutical officers, general medical practitioners, medical research library and publications officers, university academicians, heads of medical research institutions and district and regional medical officers. Additional data were obtained through a review of malaria drug policy documents and participant observations were also done.
Results: In year 2001, the Tanzanian Government officially changed its malaria treatment policy guidelines whereby CQ--the first-line drug for a long time was replaced with SP. This policy decision was supported by research evidence indicating parasite resistance to CQ and clinical CQ treatment failure rates to have reached intolerable levels as compared to SP and amodiaquine (AQ). Research also indicated that since SP was also facing rising resistance trend, the need for a more effective drug was indispensable but for an interim 5-10 year period it was justifiable to recommend SP that was relatively more cost-effective than CQ and AQ. The government launched the policy change considering that studies (ethically approved by the Ministry of Health) on therapeutic efficacy and cost-effectiveness of artemisinin drug combination therapies were underway. Nevertheless, the process of communicating research results and recommendations to policy-making authorities involved critical debates between policy makers and researchers, among the researchers themselves and between the researchers and general practitioners, the speculative media reports on SP side-effects and reservations by the general public concerning the rationale for policy change, when to change, and to which drug of choice.
Conclusion: Changing national drug policy will remain a sensitive issue that cannot be done overnight. However, to ensure that research findings are recognised and the recommendations emanating from such findings are effectively utilized, a systematic involvement of all the key stakeholders (including policy-makers, drug manufacturers, media, practitioners and the general public) at all stages of research is crucial. It also matters how and when research information is communicated to the stakeholders. Professional organizations such as the East African Network on Malaria Treatment have potential to bring together malaria researchers, policy-makers and other stakeholders in the research-to-drug policy change interface.