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Lessons of global scientific feats for Nigeria

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(File photo: Reuters)

In the midst of desperate international efforts to find a permanent solution to the debilitating Coronavirus pandemic, Nigeria and Nigerians have a cause to massage their ego as contributing somewhat to the search. Two Nigerian nationals – medical doctors – are in the news for their activism in scientific growth, part of which is directly related to the making of a COVID-19 vaccine presently thrilling the world.

But there is a gloomy side to the story, manifested in the absence of an enabling and conducive environment for Nigerians to shine more in solving world medical and scientific problems; and that the few Nigerians in the limelight now are there courtesy of facilities provided by other countries to which they migrated in pursuit of professional and career fulfilment.

In a moment of glory, a Nigerian’s ground-breaking work is signaling the beginning of the end for the disease. Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu who studied Medicine at the University of Calabar in 2003, interned at the Ebonyi State University Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki, before going to Yale University for further studies; is leading the Pfizer trial for the coronavirus vaccine in the United States. He is the Yale principal investigator on multiple investigational therapeutic and preventative clinical trials for COVID-19, including remdesivir, now United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved, leronlimab and remdesivir and tocilizumab combination therapy, as well as the Pfizer/BioNTech Vaccine trial.

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In a related development, Dr. Oluyinka Olutoye, who had his medical degree from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in 1988, and in collaboration with his colleague successfully removed tumour from a baby in her mother’s womb. The duo removed the baby from her mother’s womb, operated on it, and returned it to the womb. The baby progressed and continued to grow until she was finally delivered at 36 weeks. This is just one of many medical feats by Nigerians. Dr. Olutoye, now a professor of medicine in the U.S. is a Nigerian, who trained in Nigeria. However, he is a brain gain to the United States.

It is indeed cheering that several Nigerians were well-trained in the country’s educational system and are contributing to scientific knowledge and interventions globally. This again vindicates local trainers and training institutions. Notwithstanding, Nigeria remains mainly dependent on foreign countries for vaccine and expert medical care, and lament about medical tourism. The paradoxical equation calls for a reflection on how Nigeria is raising medical experts for other countries, but in deficit of medics. In effect, while Nigerian trained medics are some of the best and most sought after globally as health care solution providers; the nation is grossly deficient in providing health services to its 200 million population, prompting a high rate of medical tourism by Nigerians.

Training experts with taxpayers’ money, but not retaining them due to poor welfare package and unconducive operating environment, is another form of capital flight from the country. If nothing is done to reverse this trend, Nigeria’s health sector may become like the oil sector that exports crude oil and imports refined petroleum product. In such a scenario, which is increasingly manifesting, medical tourism increases for Nigerian patients who can afford it, only to be treated by focused and committed Nigerian trained doctors, Meanwhile, the majority who have no means, invariably suffer and often die untimely. Nigeria’s loss, is the gain of other countries, where the conditions are more suitable. It is a shame that the country has brains, but cannot retain them at home.

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This is happening because for the country’s rulers, self-interest takes precedence over public good. They neither care about education nor the health care of citizens. Public hospitals, which they once qualified as “consulting clinics”, become mortuaries in their glare. An Octogenarian and past leader of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Dr. Edmundson Thompson Akpabio said recently: “The NMA under my leadership did everything possible to persuade the government to see the need to give a little more attention to improve the grossly inadequate Health Care System in Nigeria. All our pleas fell on deaf ears…”

If Drs. Ogbuagu and Olutoye were to be in Nigeria, it is highly likely that they would lack the enabling environment to do groundbreaking researches and provide solution to human development; and thus be denied the opportunity to maximise their potential and self-actualise. What made the difference largely is the enabling environment! Failure of the Nigerian state to provide an enabling environment for experts to contribute to national development, is self-destruction.

Looking ahead, the Nigerian Academy of Science (NAS); Raw Material Research and Development Council (RMRDC), Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) and the Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH) should rise up to the occasion and work with Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NiDCOM) to mobilise Nigeria’s human resources. Nigeria can get strong support from some of these health professionals in the diaspora to rebuild her ailing health sector. They can also support the setting up of vaccine and prophylactics production facilities in the country. But there is no alternative to good governance that will ensure an environment friendly for professional excellence.

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