Vernachlässigte Tropenkrankheiten

Der Parasitologe Dr. Uwemedimo Ekpo kämpft gegen "Neglected Tropical Diseases".

In the laboratory of the biological department of the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria, Uwemedimo Ekpo and his team analyze urine samples from patients in areas where parasitic worms cause schistosomiasis (Photo: Andrew Esiebo).
In the laboratory of the biological department of the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria, Uwemedimo Ekpo and his team analyze urine samples from patients in areas where parasitic worms cause schistosomiasis (Photo: Andrew Esiebo).

Skin rashes, edema, intestinal worms: Uwemedimo Ekpo certainly didn’t choose the most pleasant subject for his research. For Africa, though, these are topics of utmost importance – especially in the sub-Saharan region, where very little is known about such tropical diseases simply because until now they have been neglected. In particular, parasitic diseases like schistosomiasis (Bilharzia) are the cause of enormous human suffering. Symptoms include blood in the urine, chronic tiredness, and lethargy.

"I’ll never forget it", Ekpo cannot rid his mind of the scenes he witnessed while on a field trip to the rural areas of Nigeria. "It’s awful to see how many people are afflicted by parasites and the dreadful impact this has on their lives." On that day he made up his mind to dedicate his future work to the fight against parasitic disease.

His doctoral dissertation on schistosomiasis disease in Ogun State, Southwestern Nigeria, triggered by his experiences with the Guinea worm disease was submitted to the Department of Biological Sciences of the University of Agriculture in Abeokuta, Nigeria. It was his mentor Professor C.F. Mafiana, who drew his attention to a call for proposals that exactly fitted his research field: The European Foundation Initiative for African Research into Neglected Tropical Diseases (EFINTD), a collaborative effort supported by the five European foundations Fondazione Cariplo, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Fondation Mérieux, Nuffield Foundation and the Volkswagen Foundation, had become aware of the significance of hitherto unresearched tropical diseases and begun funding projects run by young African researchers at their home institutes. Ekpo sent in his application – and in 2009 was among one of the first postdocs to receive a three-year Junior Fellowship.

Photo: Andrew Esiebo
Photo: Andrew Esiebo

Working between 2009 and 2011 in cooperation with his partner institution in Europe, the Tropical and Public Health Institute in Switzerland (Swiss TPH), Ekpo developed a geostatistical model encompassing all the data available on schistosomiasis that had been gathered in Nigeria since the 1930s. Based on this information – and Bayes‘ probability theory – he began the task of compiling geostatistical maps showing the incidence of diseases in specific areas and geographical gaps in Nigeria.

The information contained in these maps is now recognized as an important tool for the work of many NGOs in the region. “The research findings are also of great interest to the Nigerian Ministry of Health”, adds Ekpo. Notwithstanding, there is hardly any money available to fund the research still needed to be able to successfully combat parasitic diseases. “My own university can only make around 24,000 euros a year available for research”, says Ekpo. “Moreover, the unreliable Internet access makes it extremely difficult to always be updated on international calls in respect of research funding.”

Under such conditions it is hardly surprising that African researchers come off rather badly in international comparison, and that little research on neglected tropical diseases takes place within the region itself. The EFINTD Program aims to change this sad state of affairs by providing sustainable support for the research infrastructure in Africa. In common with other sectors of the Volkswagen Foundation’s Africa initiative, researchers can take advantage of a three step process to pave their career pathways and become established at their host institu- tes. For example, students are able to apply for scholarships to fund their PhD – and subsequently as young postgraduates first for a Junior and then for a Senior Fellowship. The cooperation with partner institutes in Europe ensures that international networks are built up, helping to anchor not only the fellows but also their institutes in the international scientific community.

"EFINTD is one of the first support programs to provide incentives for African researchers to stay in Africa", says Ekpo approvingly. "I very much hope that the situation at our universities will be influenced for the better so that scientists like myself will be able to keep up with colleagues in other parts of the world." 

Uwemedimo Ekpo gladly seized the opportunity to advance his career: In 2012 he was granted a three-year Senior Fellowship to deepen his studies on schistosomiasis as well as the soil transmitted helminthiasis, a debilitating worm infection. His dream: A professorship at his home institute in Abeokuta, the wherewithal to set up a research center run by African scientists to combat neglected tropical diseases, and – to free the world from parasitic disease. Research funding could hardly be more sustainable...

Melanie Gärtner


Parasitology and epidemiology expert Dr. Uwemedimo Ekpo is researching how to improve prevention and medical care in his home country of Nigeria, where he has been granted an EFINTD Senior Fellowship. In the laboratory of the biological department of the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria, Uwemedimo Ekpo and his team analyze urine samples from patients in areas where parasitic worms cause schistosomiasis. The results of their research enrich data bases on tropical diseases and are the basis of geostatistical maps.