Africa must have diseases research centres

07 Mar, 2015 - 00:03 0 Views

The Chronicle

Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu Opinion
The latest African Union (AU) summit held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at which President Mugabe was elected to the continental chairmanship came shortly after the world’s media had been focused on West Africa because of the occurrence there of the devastating Ebola disease. The hitherto incurable ailment, which has more or less subsided, is playing havoc with people’s lives mainly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea (Conakry) where it has killed more than 10,000 people.

A few people in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were affected by the viral malady during its initial stages but it was soon brought under control in those two countries.

The current outbreak of that highly fatal disease is the second, the first having occurred about two or so decades ago. It also left a trail of sorrow and wailing echo in the affected nations, particularly the DRC.

It appears as if Ebola is a new disease to mankind as there are no historical records of similar occurrences elsewhere in any continent.

It might have very well occurred elsewhere where there was no tradition of keeping records because writing was unknown and only records were kept by a few individuals who had retentive memories, and were fortunate to live long. Such individuals, however, died and were buried with their treasured memories.

As of now, the world is confronted by this serious disease for which there is no known remedy. Most of the people attacked by the Ebola virus do not live to narrate their experiences.

Parents leave behind helpless, bewildered heart-broken orphans; children may be survived by irreparably shocked parents who have been turned into destitutes by the irretrievable loss of bread-winners.

Villages and hamlets had been turned into deserted ghostly houses and huts, breeding places for rodents and reptiles, and in the rural areas a hunting ground for scavengers and birds of prey.

That is the Ebola trail and aftermath; the picture obtaining in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea while the AU summit was in session in Addis Ababa.

The author of this opinion article is not aware of any truly meaningful decision taken by that summit to find either a preventive or curative measure or remedy against Ebola.

The African continent seems to give more priority to political rather than to social problems. Almost all African states, from Angola to Zimbabwe have universities, some of the several, and some of those institutions have medicine faculties from which doctors and other medical technicians graduate regularly.

What is lacking in those institutions are research facilities, and yet that is precisely what Africa needs, research, especially in the medical field. We now seem to forget that during the liberation struggle, we promised that we would eliminate three causes of misery in every liberated African state.

Those causes of misery are disease, poverty and ignorance. To eliminate disease, it is most important to research into, first, causes of various disease, and, second, possible remedies of those diseases.

Poverty is eliminated by making the basic means of production available to the people. The basic means of production is land of course. Ignorance is a social weakness eliminated by making educational facilities, personnel and equipment available, accessible and affordable. This article is about disease and but in particular Ebola and how the AU appear to have been paying more attention and resources to the continent’s political than to its social problems.

Universities just have to carry out research to find out causes, effects and possible remedies for a number of diseases prevalent in Africa. The medical profession is what and where it is today because of research.

In historical terms, the art of medicine was probably first practised in Egypt where and when the functions of the priest were combined with those of the physician. We come across the treatment of lepers by priests in some of Moses’ writings while the Jews were still in Egypt. As it developed, it was divided into three main branches: Preventive medicine, the branch that prevents the occurrence of diseases by means of personal and public hygiene, rational medicine, a reference to the healing art by means of actual knowledge and reasoning from the known to the unknown, and the third branch is psychological medicine, a branch that deals with mental diseases.

In addition to the word “medicine” meaning any substance used to cure a disease, or having a remedial effect against condition, the word also applies to the art of healing or alleviating or preventing a disease.

Research plays a major role in the treatment of patients by medical doctors. The first medical practitioner to leave written records about some disease and their possible remedies was Hippocrates, a well known historic medical pioneer who was born in about 460 BC.

Hippocrates attributed causes of disease to two factors: influences of seasons, climate, water, emotional situations and the effects of the local animals such as cats or cattle on some individuals, and the second factor is the food the individual consumes as well as the physical exercise (personal regimen) the particular individual does.

Medical history tells us that his treatment of diseases was “cautious,” a term later replaced by the word “expectant.” He was very particular about his patients, food, beverages and regimen.

Research over the centuries has brought the medical art from those primitive stages of Hippocrates to our scientific era when surgeons perform organ transplants as easily as replacing a shirt button.

Since the famous heart transplant by Dr Chris Barnard of Cape Town in the 1970s, not much has been heard from Africa in connection with new medical discoveries, innovative achievements or research programmes. We only hear about America, France, and India.

Meanwhile, the continent has now had two very devastating medical tragic experiences: HIV and Ebola. Maybe President Mugabe’s chairmanship will try to change Africa’s priorities from the political to the social arena.

Without reducing their World Health Organisation’s membership benefits and responsibilities, AU member-states should use their mineral resources to establish university-linked research programmes to deal primarily with Africa’s health problems.

In considering this matter, we should bear in mind that according to WHO statistics, the African continent suffered the heaviest HIV world’s fatality burden at 70 percent in the 1990s. Now, the continent has Ebola to contend with, and what is it doing about it?

In addition to appealing to the United States and Europe for medical assistance, the AU owes it to its people to use its vast resources for their collective benefit.

AU governments can launch university-based medical research programmes with universities working in regional clusters with an Addis Ababa AU-attached centre as the head office which would regularly liase with the WHO.

The programme could research into the continent’s wide variety of animals and plant life, and experiment with its extracts’ possible preventive and/ or curative properties Africa’s minerals, fresh water, marine vegetable and animal life, plus terrestrial found and flora can, if properly researched, offer a range of medicines for many diseases that have ravaged the continent. The initiative is in the corridors of power.

l Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu is a Bulawayo-based retired journalist. He can be contacted on cell 0734328136 or through email [email protected]

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