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Mr. Charles Olalekan Mensah: Saving Lives One At A Time

IHVN COO & MD, Charles Olalekan MENSAH

Mr Charles Olalekan Mensah is the Managing Director/Chief Operating Officer (MD/COO), of the Institute of Human Virology Nigeria. Full of concern of the health of citizens in Nigeria especially those living with HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria and other diseases in Nigeria, he speaks to The Guardian Life on wellness, impact and the coronavirus.

How has the public responded to funding for non-governmental organizations?
We need more people to understand the role of non-profit organizations and the impact they make in society. As an organization, IHVN competes for grants and contracts. We don’t have a specified line of funding from government and private individuals like they do in the United States. The funds we get come with specific mandates. Even if you see something very important that you need to get into, as long as the funding does not allow you to do that, you can’t do it. For instance, we would love to do a lot to address COVID-19 but our funding profile doesn’t allow us to do that.

What are the achievements you’ve made so far with the Institute?
In terms of success, we have done very well in a short period of time we’ve been in existence in 2004. We have made enormous impact particularly in the years of TB, malaria and HIV/AIDS. We also have other programs we are doing in the areas of cancer, diabetes and other diseases. We’ve trained over 41,000 health care workers in the country and we are still doing more.

In terms of actual intervention, IHVN was the first implementing partners to address Multi-Drug Resistant TB in the country through funding from the Global Fund. When we started in 2011, patients needed to be isolated for up 18 months. This duration has now been reduced first to nine months. Now, it is down to six months
We had the highest success rate in the world in terms of MDR-TB success rate. This is confirmed by the Global Fund and WHO. The centre where we recorded this MDR-TB success rate is presently being used in Lagos as the isolation centre for COVID-19. This same centre, which we were managing for MDR-TB patients, was used fight Ebola scourge. We had to release those patients and redistribute them to other centres when Ebola came.

If you look at the development of local laboratories that have been used to diagnose a lot of diseases, we developed 17 PCR laboratories in the country and we currently and directly manage five. Those are the areas where we have really contributed very well in the development in health care infrastructure in the country. It is a shame that there is no government support for a lot of these basics. We still depend on donor funding but we have been seeing some movement on the part of the current government to see how they can take over some of these laboratories which is very encouraging and we pray it comes to conclusion.

Are you going to bring all this together?
We will still maintain those ones but we will have them replicated. The idea is we will now be able to attract the best minds in Africa and beyond to come and do research in Nigeria. For instance, with COVID-19 now, everybody is struggling, to contain it? How do we develop a vaccine?

If we complete the construction of our International Research Center of Excellence, which is nearing completion, and it comes alive, we can put heads together to promote public/private partnership for quality health services, capacity building and research in West Africa. We have a lot of smart scientists in Nigeria. When they come together, they have infrastructure. They don’t have to worry about power, IT, the basic laboratory things that they need. They just go in there, hunker down and develop something. The overall goal is to get a platform for our very bright scientists, researchers in health care and basic science, not only for professional development but to also conduct lifesaving health researches that we can deploy to the general population and training and engaging new researchers in its mentorship program.

Considering the spread of COVID-19, we are having shortages in masks and recently, Chloroquine. What is your advice on this and what do you think can be done?
I think the first thing is that people should not panic. What is causing some of these shortages is panic buying. We need to stop getting panicky about this. The good thing is that even if one gets infected, as long as you are a healthy young person you can survive it.

We don’t congregate our old people, we don’t have nursing homes. Our old people are generally not in the urban areas. They are generally in the rural areas If you go to the average village, there is one house here, the other house is over there, so the chance that our old people will be adversely affected is not as high as in the US and UK where old people live in nursing homes and have pre-existing conditions, weak hearts, diabetes, cancer and all those things.

Surfaces must be disinfected regularly so that you keep people from being infected from surfaces. In addition to washing your hands and practising social distancing, we should make sure that surfaces are clean and wipe regularly. We should also make sure that we wipe it clean any time anyone touches it. If we do all those things, I think we have a reasonable chance of not having a widespread infection.

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