THE MEDICAL RESEARCHER WHO WENT TO WAR AGAINST SICKLE CELL DISORDER

Whenever discussions about crises in the world come up, we never cease to give moments of respect to the medical practitioners who are always there to solve issues of one health disaster or the other. Many diseases have been around for a while and they keep thriving quietly and wreaking gradual havoc and medical researchers and practitioners give their time and energy trying to find a solution. Some other diseases like Covid, Ebola and Flu just spring out of nowhere and add to the already stressful schedule of these people.

Professor Julie Makani is a medical researcher who is passionate about finding a solution to one lasting disease and this is sickle cell disorder. She is a senior lecturer and specialist physician at the Department of Haematology and Blood Transfusion at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences, here lies Tanzania’s largest study centre for sickle cell disorder. Prof Julie is the Principal investigator of the Sickle Pan African Research Consortium (SPARCO) within the network of the SickleInAfrica. She is also the co-principal investigator for SickleGenAfrica and the MUHAS site for H3ABioNet.

Prof Julie was born in 1970. She did her primary education at St Constantine’s in Arusha and in 1994 got her medical degree from the Muhimbili University in Tanzania. Her post-graduate study stemmed at the Hammersmith Hospital, Royal Postgraduate Medical School at the University of London while on a Commonwealth scholarship. From there, she became a Research Fellow at the Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford. The Wellcome Trust in 2003 awarded her a four-year PhD training fellowship to study sickle cell disorder in Tanzania. She got the Royal Society Pfizer Award in 2011 for her work on sickle cell disorder.

Prof Julie was recognized as a part of the BBC 100 Women.

Her study of sickle cell disorder

In Tanzania, it was estimated that about eight to eleven thousand children are born with sickle cell disorder and this has led to the death of many children, as about ninety per cent of them cannot reach adulthood. Initially, Prof Julie was focusing on the study of malaria, bacterial infections and stroke but later on she started studying Sickle cell disorder and developed a biomedical research and healthcare programme which is one of the largest Sickle cell disorder Cohorts. She mainly studies the role of anaemia and foetal haemoglobin in influencing disease burden in sickle cell disorder. Prof Julie has pushed her work to the national level, as she also seeks to provide solutions to Sickle cell disorder that are relevant locally and globally.

Her motivation stemmed from the story of the disease affecting five of her cousins and leading to the death of three of the brothers. One of them had a crisis while visiting her home, which they witnessed firsthand. He studied medicine in Russia, but the disease caught up with him and he died at a young age.

Though there is a drug for treating sickle cell complications and it can help reduce all the bad sides of the disease, there is not much research that has been done into the best method of using it in Africa. This is another reason Prof Julie is studying and making continuous research.

Though Africa is seen as a pity case because of the diseases that exist in it, she does not see the continent that way but sees the prevalence of diseases as an opportunity to study more about them and many other genetic disorders. But the problem that they are facing is that the resources for doing such studies are few.

In all her work, she refuses to give up despite the several challenges and the fact that her field is a male-dominated one.

Life will always present its challenges whenever you decide to pick up the pace and make for change, but this does not mean you should stop. There are people who need your influence and ideas to live better lives, hence, whenever you think of stopping, pause and think of those whose lives depend on your work and keep forging on.

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