25 Aug 2014

Ebola And Need To Promote Research And Development - by Robinson Tombari Sibe

The Ebola outbreak has indeed left us a frightened nation. Much as the Lagos State Government and the Federal Government have displayed a commendable spirit and attitude, the fact that we were unprepared is not in dispute. 

Isolation camps were hurriedly set up, and measures were quickly devised out of nothing. The agencies across all strata have also been collaborating with unity of purpose, without trading blames, and that has been quite commendable. However, like we all know, these are knee-jerk emergency routines. And you know what happens with the fire brigade approach – at best the fire is quenched, but the whole place is all messed up.

There was a ray of hope following the approval by the WHO for the use of experimental drugs on consenting patients, and the subsequent release of the drug by one of the manufacturers, free of charge to West Africa. While we salute this effort, however, we must remind ourselves that as a continent, we had no reason to be this helpless 38 years after the disease was first discovered in Democratic Republic of Congo. It is not a cheery news that the African continent will be helplessly waiting for the manufacturers of the experimental drug to fly it several time zones across the Atlantic to treat her citizens. And so, we found ourselves in this situation, all fixated on help across the ocean. Quite sad!

How did we get it all wrong? Following the successful containment of the spread, the continent simply went to sleep as though the virus could not stage a comeback. While research was going on in other parts of the world that never had the virus, we simply pretended as though we got it all wrapped up. The few individual efforts made by individuals were not properly motivated or encouraged. The result is what we have at hand – the biggest Ebola outbreak in history.

This experience should remind us of the need to be more serious with Research and Development, especially in critical areas such as Health, Science and Technology, etc. If we had consistently researched and explored ways of arriving at a vaccine, who knows by now we may have had our own ready-made vaccine before this current outbreak. We must borrow a leaf from these countries where R&D is taken quite seriously. We must fund R&D and encourage inter-disciplinary collaborations towards arriving at holistic solutions.

I recall attending a workshop at the Royal Geographic Society, London, in 2009, organised by the Infectious Diseases Research Network. The theme of the workshop was, “Use of mapping software and systems in health research”, and I made a presentation on the Prospects and Challenges in the Developing World. I listened to several speakers share their knowledge, experience, research results, best practices and new findings, etc. The workshop was quite necessary in view of the role played by mapping systems in health, especially in the area of epidemiology. Because we do not have such collaborations in this part, our health systems are deprived of such expertise and coordination. Little wonder in the last decade, there have been cholera outbreaks, Lassa Fever, etc yet if you seek a simple map or some kind of simulation of the spread, contagion trends, vector patterns, etc, you will not find any. It is quite sad because the rest of the world is making tremendous progress. As early as 1854, one of the fathers of epidemiology, John Snow, had mapped the spread of cholera in London. Part of the workshop activities was a visit to the John Snow Pub to unwind, and I remember having a glass to the memory of this great one.

Several organisations such as the IDRN and other research institutes in the UK receive funding running into billions of pounds for research and development. To have a sustainable solution to our health challenges, we must think ahead, and R&D is one guaranteed way. We must be prepared as this will come at a cost.

Yes, R&D is quite expensive. The strategic role the health sector plays makes it incumbent on government to play a leading role in R&D, as if left entirely in the hands of the private sector, market forces will drive them to only consider profitable solutions (or drugs commonly patronised by the world’s richest people). This explains why according to the WHO, “Of the 1200 drugs developed between 1971 and 1996, only three were anti-malarials”. R&D is quite an expensive venture; hence government needs to make a conscious effort in providing funding to stimulate interest. According to the UK Office for National Statistics, in 2012 the UK Government spent £4.2bn on pharmaceutical R&D alone. According to Research America (www.researchamerica.org), in 2012, an estimated $130bn was spent in medical and health research. A breakdown of this figure shows that about $36bn was spent on pharmaceutical R&D alone. Juxtapose this with the figures (if any) in Nigeria and you will see that we have not even started. In truth, we cannot afford this type of money, but clearly what we currently appropriate is a far cry from what we can do. If we want a robust health sector in future, we must begin to consciously invest in health R&D in ways commensurate to our capacity. And I don’t mean just the orthodox medicine; we must further our research in traditional medicine practice as well as this holds immense potential.

We are already faced with a situation – a serious one at that. Serious enough to be classified a national security issue. We must join hands to fight off the threat. Education is key! Call your not-too-educated relatives and properly educate them on safe practices. Our mass media houses should saturate the space with the right information on combating the scourge. Churches, mosques and other religious organisations should collaborate with government to spread the right message. All stakeholders must come together at this decisive moment. We have displayed a remarkable spirit thus far, we can continue to improve. Once again, I salute the efforts of the Lagos State and Federal Government, and not forgetting the tireless efforts of our health workers, who often times put their lives on the line, to attend to the sick. They are heroes in every right. We must stand together and stay strong to overcome!

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