Dearth of scientific breakthroughs in Nigeria due to poor investment

Ujah-Copy• NIMR advocates National Health Research Fund, universal coverage
• Ujah celebrates evidence-based findings, marks fifth anniversary

Agencies of government with the mandate for scientific, medical and health research have been criticized for not churning out novel breakthroughs in drug development and disease treatment option. But the Director General of the Nigerian Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) Yaba, Lagos, Prof. Innocent Ujah, has blamed the situation on poor investment in health research in Nigeria. Ujah, in an interview with The Guardian ahead of his fifth anniversary as the D.G of the Institute, on July 8, 2015, and symposium to disseminate evidence based research findings, said ‘you cannot reap where you did not sow.’

He, however, called for the establishment of Special Fund for Health Research even as he said NIMR has been able to do a lot of things with the limited resources available.

Ujah said a system has been instituted in NIMR with an enabling environment for effective research and capacity development, and the Institute has just completed a building for biomedical training and cancer research centre as well as procured a specialize machine, Cobalt 4800 for the characterization of the subtypes of Human Papilomavirus (HPV) and has commissioned a nationwide survey.

Ujah also said the result of NIMR’s research findings on alcohol use in pregnancy, which was commissioned by Consolidated Breweries would be made public on that day even as he hailed the ban on the consumption of ogogoro, local gin, by the National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). The NIMR D.G. said it is not a must but it is desirable that a medical doctor becomes the next health minister, among other things. CHUKWUMA MUANYA writes. Excerpts

What are you celebrating?
WE are celebrating as an Institute the fifth anniversary of my assumption of duty, as the director general of NIMR and what we will do during this period is to use it to disseminate our research findings based on evidence.

This year, we are planning to look at national health act and the universal health coverage and also to look at the place of NIMR in the national health act where it talks about national health research and information system. And therefore we need to reposition ourselves to respond appropriately to health research so that they can inform policy formulation and implementation and we expect that the Nigerian public will be availed of the activities that we carry out in this Institute.

We will use this opportunity to let the public know what we do, what we can do and what we should do in terms of our mandate as a federal establishment.

This year we think the July 8 should be the appropriate date this year to have the activities, which in fact we also have included our research findings on alcohol use in pregnancy, which was actually commissioned by Consolidated Breweries as part of their corporate social responsibilities. Even when they sell alcohol, they also want to know the effect of alcohol in pregnancy. We have done that research and we will be disseminating the findings on that day.

Ok you have talked about the issue of universal health coverage as one of the big topics. How far with implementation of universal health coverage?
Well, you know universal health coverage is saying that no body who needs health should be deprived of that service for lack of money or lack of access and also the fact that there should be availability of health. So Nigeria under the national health insurance scheme is trying to reposition itself to respond to universal health coverage in using even the community health insurance programme and the rest. So its formative period but the direction is that we want as much as if its possible for all Nigerians to buy into the national health insurance scheme because that’s the one that subsides, that’s the one that will last, and that will provide accessibility, availability and quality service to our people.

You have spent five years as the D.G. of NIMR. Do you think you have made any impact?
Well, it will be presumptuous for me to access myself, because I believe that no body sees him her self except by the mirror. But I can tell you that when I came in here, there were few things that I looked at and I chose what I should do within my tenure. As you know my tenure was four years in the first instance to enable for another one, so I have finished the first term and in the second term now, I have spent one year.

Now one of the things that I thought was lacking was the fact that there was no system, so I felt I needed to have a system on ground. I can tell you largely that there is a system on ground. Many things happen in this place now without the presence of the director general. Previously, if the director general is not around, nothing happens. You know we have a lot of activities, for instance, when we marked our world cancer day, world malaria day, world tuberculosis day, I was on national assignment but the activities went on very well and that is building the system, and am quite happy about that. I created an enabling environment for effective research and capacity development and I can tell you proudly that to some extent we have achieved. We would not have reach where we wanted, but I believe we are on the right path.

And also we have opened NIMR to the world, because previously when you say you are from Nigeria institute of medical research, they say what do they do there. And it is also true that since I came in, apart from the fact that we have undertaken quality research, we have participated in many public issues, for instance during the flood, during cholera epidemic and the rest even the issue of the ogogoro tragedy, initially thought to be the fact that the gods were angered in Ondo state. We also looked at it and systematically followed up and characterized the pathology of the tissues and found that it was not a disease epidemic because no child was involved, no woman was involved, and these are the vulnerable groups.

In that regard, I think that we are positioning our selves and one of the things that is very strategic is that we for the first time under my administration developed a strategic plan, five years strategic plan and we doing very well in that regard because we now have research groups. We have nine research groups, which never existed before in the history of NIMR and various researchers have been grouped in those and they can even interact and I think that is a great achievement. For instance we have malaria research group, we have Human Immune-deficiency Virus (HIV), TB research group, we have maternal child and reproductive health research group, neglected tropical diseases research group, we have health system and policy research group, we also have immunology and vaccine research group, and clinical trials research group.

So these have actually positioned us as an Institute to respond to various things and in fact emergency preparedness and response. So we in my opinion, this is how research institute should go, and we believe that apart from that, we are building a lot of capacities: the capacity of our staff, so for even Industrial Attachment (I.T.) students. I decided to open up the Institute to ensure that we get younger scientists and undergraduate student and even master’s student to come and do their laboratory work here. And this gives them the beginning, just like catching them young, and I think that’s the right thing to do. So we are on the right path, and I think because of that we also have been repositioned to respond to many calls for proposals.

For instance, the African Centre of Excellence, which is World Bank assisted programme, NIMR is collaborating with the University of Benin, Edo State, in the area of reproductive health and innovation and also Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, Kaduna State, in the area of neglected tropical diseases and molecular biology and biotechnology. So if we are not doing well, people won’t have sort for our support.

There is this belief, should I say criticism by people that most of our research institutes are not doing well in terms of churning out discoveries. They say that research institutes are not doing as expected, in terms of producing the cures or breakthroughs and so on. How true is this?

Yes, I was saying that wherever you want results, you must invest and research is capital intensive. There is no two ways about that and Nigerians are quick to ask what are your breakthroughs? What they do not ask is what are the investments given to you? So in a way, with even the limited resource that we have, we are able to do a lot of things.

For instance, you know when the Ebola virus disease came out, very few countries gave us a chance, they thought Nigerians were going to be wiped out, but we use Nigerians with the support of other partners and with the political commitment of Mr. President then and the Ministry of Health, and you found out what happened.

We started discussing the issue of Ebola before it came because once it came to Sierra Leone and Liberia, we knew it was a question of time, because of trans-border movement and therefore we have started training, we started seminars and when it came, the emergency treatment centre. We participated very effectively and I was a co- chair and am still the co-chair of the Ebola Treatment Research Group with Prof. Karniyus Gamaliel, the D.G. of the Nigerian Institute of Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD).

So I think that what is needed is that Nigerians must appreciate the value of research, and if they know that research is important, then they must invest in research. At the moment is not just, I don’t think is only NIMR that is not been funded properly to carry out its research activities, but I think that all research institutes should, because research drives development. I know that because that is why the developed countries invest a lot in areas of research. I think that Nigeria should look at that very seriously and I have also advocated for special fund for health research and we call it National Health Research Fund and it should be put aside for us to access for health research, because if we do that you find out a lot of breakthroughs would come out, even the Ebola virus disease.

There is growing cases of cancers in Nigeria, and people are concerned, what is NIMR doing about it?
Well. Thank you very much, you might be interested to know that, NIMR, has just completed a building for biomedical training and cancer research centre in the Institute, and this is born out of my realization as a gynecologist, I know that cancer of the cervix is second to cancer of the breast, you know its prevalence, and therefore we need to respond appropriately even before now, we have under my direction as a D.G., we bought a machine that actually is screening for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), the virus that causes cancer of the cervix and that’s the only one in the whole of Nigeria and the third in Africa.

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