September 1, 2011
Dr. Isaac Odame fights Sickle Cell Disease in developing countries
Some people might find it challenging to have a career as international as Dr. Isaac Odame: born and educated in Ghana, he completed his post-medical training at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children Yorkhill, Glasgow, and Hammersmith Hospital, London. He moved to Canada to become a professor at McMaster University in 2000, and joined SickKids as the Co-Director of the Haemoglobinopathy Program in January 2007.
Odame is a specialist in Sickle Cell Disease (SCD), a genetic blood disorder that affects approximately 100,000 people in North America. The affected population is much larger in Africa where more than six million patients suffer from SCD.
SCD affects blood cells which carry oxygen throughout our bodies. In SCD, red blood cells harden into a long sliver that blocks veins and arteries. The abnormally shaped red blood cells also cause injury to blood vessels of organs and can cause additional damage to the brain and lung. Children with SCD are also extremely vulnerable to infection, and have periodic health crises that cause great pain and difficulty breathing. In Africa a child with SCD has only a 50 percent chance of living to see his or her fifth birthday.
SCD is so prevalent in Africa because the genes that cause the disease also confer a resistance to malaria, a much more common killer. One out of every four Ghanaians is a carrier for the sickle cell disease genes without being afflicted with the disease.
Odame believes that to fight SCD, countries like Ghana need a “cadre of skilled workers” who can educate parents and patients about the risks and treatments. Although Ghana has an excellent public healthcare system, he says that African and international resources often focus on communicable diseases and malnutrition. As a result, healthcare practitioners in Ghana do not have adequate access to resources that would help them properly diagnose and treat prevalent genetic conditions such as SCD. Capacity building through knowledge transfer and training coupled with enhancement of local resources for clinical care (including education and counseling) will help improve the lives of children and families with SCD in Africa alongside other urgent care programs.
Although the majority of diseases are in low-income countries, most research takes place in high-income countries. Odame wants to encourage international collaborations between researchers who focus on SCD to meet two priorities: educating doctors and nurses in how to diagnose newborns, and encouraging researchers to explore the genomic factors that influence SCD.
Odame visited Ghana in June 2008 to consult with government officials regarding healthcare priorities. He returned to Africa again in January 2009 for a conference in Cotonou, Benin, arranged by SickKids. The three-day conference brought together researchers from Benin, Cote D’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo, Zambia, Kuwait, Oman, Brazil, India, France, US, UK and Canada to determine priorities in the field of SCD research. Researchers at the symposium, which was held in conjunction with the official opening of the National Sickle Cell Disease Centre in Benin, examined the state of clinical and study programs in low-income regions.
While there have been improvements in the management of SCD in the developed countries, much more remains to be learned about the disease. In low-income countries in Africa, where even less progress has been made, SCD remains a major cause of childhood morbidity and mortality. “The development of long-term sustainable partnerships between researchers in the high and low-income countries of the world will be crucial in furthering SCD research and improving clinical care globally,” says Odame.