Professor Innocent Ujah

The Director General of the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), Professor Innocent Ujah, in this interview with Rebecca Ejifoma, explained that the institute now screens for Human Papilloma Virus, which causes cancer among women, among others

Prof. Ujah

Tell us about your forthcoming anniversary?
It is largely to mark the sixth anniversary of my appointment as the Director General of the institute. All along, it has been a period of restructuring and repositioning of NIMR for excellence in medical research.

Largely, looking back in the last six years, first we thank God for keeping us alive and for supporting us in doing many things which otherwise would have been impossible for the institute to do, particularly in health, agric and engineering research. It is not a priority of government or the people of developing countries of the world unlike people of developed countries. But we have made it a priority here.

So, basically, since I came in, we mark each year on which we reflect our activities. This year, we are going to have guests lecturers speak on ‘Post MDGs: Maternal and Child Health in Nigeria.’ As you know, it is very important and because of our poor indices in MCH, we think that we should continue to remind ourselves, so that we can reposition ourselves to respond to this need; reduce the appalling figure from Nigeria. It is also to reflect on what has happened in the last one year and six years.

What have you achieved so far?
First of all, we are mandated to conduct research on the disease of public health. One of the first things we did was to look at what we road mapped. We decided to look at the common problems. We have nine research groups headed by very senior researchers in the institute on HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis. We have the largest number of HIV/AIDS as an institution. We have started researching into it.

Now, you will realise that in the last one month, we lost three great Nigerians due to sudden deaths and NIMR has thought about it long time. And we’ve started talking about what the causes of sudden deaths are. How can we research into this? How can we then design a policy for the government in order to prevent further sudden deaths. So, you can see that we are looking far ahead of what is happening.

We, also, have Emergency Preparedness and Response Research Group (EPRRG). We respond to emergencies, and at the moment we are preparing to go to the Internally Displaced Persons camps to look at their health challenges or possible health challenges that might come in the future.

About the Emergency Response Group, is there any plan by the institute concerning the flood that has been predicted to take place?
We have EPRRG. It’s ready. Even when there was cholera outbreak, we sent our people to Gombe, Maiduguri and Bauchi. Apart from providing emergency response, we try to gather data which will help us inform the government on some of the challenges and how to solve them. It is also to sensitise the public because as we know environmental factors are very important in the coordination of flooding. If you have good drainage, flood will come and water will pass. But where the drainages are all blocked, obviously once there is flood the waterways will be blocked. That is why there is devastating effect.

Recently, President Muhammadu Buhari declared malnutrition as an emergency in the IDPs. What’s the institute doing in terms of research on why most Nigerians are malnourished?
That is why we are going there. To be in an IDP camp is not even appropriate. You are displacing people from their homes to a place that is foreign where they may not have access they normally would. That’s a big challenge.

Obviously, they may not be getting what they need to eat; they share the rationing of the food, which may not be enough again. The first people they give the food are the adults before they talk of children – they are disadvantaged. But when we get there, we will be able to quantify.

We appreciate the fact that there are cases of malnutrition, cholera and other diseases even reproductive health issues. Some pregnant women deliver in the open. They don’t have toilet facilities. So, the risk of even another outbreak is there; hence, the need to document it.

The essence of research is to make data, document and proffer solutions then make recommendations. We will get a profound knowledge of what is on ground when we get there; are there medical facilities for persons who are there? If there are, are there sufficient number of health manpower that will cater for them because they are Nigerians – they are normal human beings. It’s circumstance that made them so. So, we need to quantify. It’s not enough to say malnutrition is all over the place. By how much? And who are the people that are usually affected?
It’s true. The fact that you are rich does not mean your children may not be malnourished because that is what we call poverty of knowledge. People may be so rich and yet may not give their children the right types of meal for them to grow well; it’s all over the place.

What have you achieved in the areas of HIV/AIDS and Malaria?
Currently, we are looking at ARV resistance in HIV. We are noticing that the first line drugs are fading but by how much? What are the factors?

We have been able to get grants from CDC and Atlanta and we have been able to put our data together, analyse and drawn a monocular study of all those that are fading in first line drug. And we are going to disseminate this to stakeholders by October in Abuja. Of course, we’ll publish our findings which will be a contribution of Nigeria to world body of knowledge. And I believe that NIMR is really in a position to contribute to knowledge worldwide.

If you noticed, during the Ebola outbreak and the Lassa fever outbreaks, NIMR was at the forefront. Apart from the sensitisation, we also went back to the lab to look at what we should do to ensure we contain these excesses. So, it works this way. Even particularly, before now, it was not easy for our people to compete for international grants. Today, I can say we have got researchers that have received grants from WHO; Tropical Disease Research Institute (TDRI) from WHO, CDC and even national.

We have been able to respond appropriately to many of our mandates. We have been able to improve on our labs in terms of equipment. If you get to the Human Virology laboratory today, we brought up-to-date equipment that really do monocular studies what we never knew we would get.

And the fact that we even now screen for HPV, which causes cancer, is an achievement for Nigeria. We are not just doing ordinary screening, we are doing DNA studies and characterising the various subtypes. Before now, no lab could do that screening. This is so that we will be able to establish the prevalence of HPV in Nigeria among healthy women in Nigeria.

Second, we need to characterise the subtypes of HPV to determine whether the current subtypes are the same as what is obtained in Nigeria because we have subtypes 16 and 18 for which vaccines have been made. If it’s okay that the more common ones we have in Nigeria is same as the vaccine we get, then it’s okay. If not, there is the need to tell the drug company that what we have in Nigeria is different.

Currently, we are building an e-library when I came, the library was a laughable one. But today we are almost 70 per cent into completing it. And once that is done, it will not serve NIMR alone but the whole Nigeria. What we will need now is furnishing. We’ll require support from philanthropists and private organisations to donate and contribute for the e-library.