Small Grants, Big Impact: Joy Chikwendu, Makurdi, Nigeria

In May 2017,  ARNTD, USAID, and COR-NTD announced the first-ever grantees of the African Researchers' Small Grants program. 

The six winners, selected from a pool of nearly 100 applicants, now receive support to conduct operational research to address issues facing efforts to control and eliminate neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in their home countries of Cameroon, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Togo.

Joy Chikwendu, a PhD Student from the University of Agriculture in Makurdi, Nigeria was chosen for her proposal on the investigation of possible ongoing Schistosoma hybridization in Nigeria and implications for response to treatment. This pattern, in which different species of worms co-mingle, can affect the sensitivity of the parasites to preventive treatment with Praziquantel (1). Such a finding could have significant implications in Nigeria, where more than 24 million people require annual treatment for schistosomiasis infection, according to the World Health Organization.

In this Q&A, Chikwendu talks about the fight against NTDs and what she is doing to help control schistosomiasis in her home country .

What are the challenges that you’ve seen in developing a country-wide response to the fight against NTDs in Nigeria?

I think the lack of awareness and shortage of personnel/human resources is a major challenge in the fight against NTDs in Nigeria.  I believe if Nigerians were better informed about NTDs, it would be very possible to achieve control and eradication of these diseases. We would naturally be stirred to do more than is currently being done. Control strategies, in my opinion, are more effective when there is “community participation." If everyone feels like a stakeholder – and in my opinion – everyone is, and gets involved, then a lot could be achieved when more effective strategies are devised.  Inadequate funding for NTD control activities presents another challenge. State NTD programs can and should be better funded by the government. NTD control and elimination programs are important aspects of health services worth investing in, since there is little but dedicated/strategic effort can make a world of difference in breaking the cycle of diseases and poverty.

How did you get involved with the study of schistosomiasis?

I was invited by a post-doctoral fellow who had won an indigenous research grant to be a part of his research team working on schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminthiasis in Northern Nigeria. Being new to the demands of such level of research, I initially found the work so stressful. However, my interest in research in this area heightened when I knew our research could go a long way to impact many who are unfortunately burdened with disease and poverty. This proved rewarding and sowed the seed for my continued interest to commit to a career in NTD research.

What does support from the African Researchers' Small Grants Program mean to you?

It means a lot to me, especially because I am at an early stage in my career - and so winning felt like a form of validation. But much more than that, it has stirred up ambition within me. Also, I dare say it has also affected my colleagues. When someone you know wins, then you feel like it is also within your reach. I am personally inspired by it. I have always known that more should be done. Every researcher knows that, but now thanks to the grant, I know more CAN be done.

With research dollars behind your proposal, what will be the main goal you want to accomplish throughout the grant?

My main goal is to determine if Schistosoma species hybrids exist in Nigeria like the ones that have been found in some other African countries like Senegal and Mali. If they are found in Nigeria, the implication for schistosomiasis control using preventive chemotherapy could be the possibility of drug resistance by Schistosoma hybrids.

So far, morphological evidence coupled with the cultural practices of humans and ruminants sharing the same water bodies points to the strong possibility of the existence of Schistosoma hybrids in Nigeria. Backed by molecular genotyping of the Schistosoma parasites collected, we hope to conclusively determine the existence of Schistosoma hybrids in Nigeria. If it is present, we further hope to determine if Praziquantel – the drug of choice for treating schistosomiasis in Nigeria – is an effective chemotherapy against the hybrids. Also, expected results of this study could explain the varying levels of drug susceptibility of Schistosoma parasites reported by researchers in Nigeria.

I think that better understanding of the genetics of the Schistosoma parasite in Nigeria is expected to affect control strategies especially if the current strategy is proven not to be as effective against the hybrid (if present). Also, if Schistosoma hybrids exist in Nigeria, they may not be widespread in the country in terms of their epidemiology, and so strategic control could be devised aimed at curtailing them early on.

Sometimes professionals have setbacks to reach their goals. Have you experienced these holdups? If so, what kept you motivated to keep going forward?

Our major challenge has been time management. In the communities where we are carrying out this research, most people are farmers/traders/students have their work to attend to and so may not be able/willing to leave their work for the day. It would be different if they were coming to a hospital to get treated and then were enrolled to the research. Since we are soliciting them, either in schools or a central area in the community, we have had to devise inventives and ways of accommodating their schedule while achieving our objectives. The end result has been my motivation to press on. The desire to start and complete the research has kept me and my team moving forward.  

(1)Webster BL, Diaw OT, Seye MM, Webster JP, Rollinson D (2013) Introgressive Hybridization of Schistosoma haematobium Group Species in Senegal: Species Barrier Break Down between Ruminant and Human Schistosomes. PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases 7(4): e2110. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pntd.0002110

 

The African Research Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases (ARNTD) is the only African-based network, spear-headed by Africans that does not exclusively focus on a single NTD or theme and is composed of individuals from a variety of disciplines across health, social, and management sciences, including policymakers. The ARNTD secretariat is based in Kumasi, Ghana, with membership spread across 30 countries.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is the lead U.S. Government agency that works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential. Based in Washington, D.C., USAID extends help from the American people to achieve results for the poorest  and most vulnerable around the world. 

The Coalition for Operational Research on Neglected Tropical Diseases (COR-NTD) includes researchers, program implementers, and their supporters with the shared goal of optimizing the control and elimination of neglected tropical diseases. The COR-NTD secretariat is the Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center, a program at The Task Force for Global Health in Decatur, GA, USA.