Dr Richard Idro, a Ugandan consulting paediatrician and paediatric neurologist at Mulago Hospital, has received the inaugural Greenwood Africa Award 2019 in recognition of his outstanding research on the nodding disease syndrome and malaria.
Dr Idro, 49, is also a senior lecturer in the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, College of Health Sciences at Makerere University.
The award ceremony was held recently at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where he gave a lecture titled "Severe Malaria, Nodding Syndrome and Wisdom of Teeth."
The Greenwood Africa Award recognises future potential of mid-career African scientists and their the achievements in research contributing to the control of infectious diseases in sub-Saharan Africa.
Dr Idro is currently heading a malaria and nodding disease study in Uganda, where he has developed guidelines and trained experts, for which he has received the African Research Leadership Award. Also near completion is research on malaria he is conducting jointly with teams from Kenya and Malawi. The research involves keeping track of children discharged from hospital where they had received blood transfusion in the course of malaria treatment.
He started his career in Makerere University where he pursued a medical course on a government sponsorship. He then secured a Commonwealth scholarship to study human anatomy at a Zimbabwean university where he had an outstanding performance in biochemistry. Being a two-years course, the Makerere University administration advised him to take a third year so that he could qualify to lecture at the college.
"I wanted to be a specialist in child maternal health, so I left Zimbabwe and went for internship at Rubaga Hospital in Uganda," Dr Idro says. After internship he served at Moyo Hospital in northern Uganda for a year and opted to study for a Masters in paediatrics and child health in 1998. His research focused on cerebral malaria. Similar research had been done in Malawi. His research subjects were in Kilifi, Kenya, and its completion saw him awarded the International Health Award of the Ambulatory Paediatric Association. He presented this research at an International Malaria conference that was held in Arusha, Tanzania.
That presentation earned him a sponsorship for Phd studies at the University College, London. His research was a continuation of what he conducted in Kilifi, but addressing the issue of convulsions in children, their immediate and long impact and how to develop treatment to stop them.
"Children who get continuous convulsions can get brain damage, learning problems and epilepsy and so doctors prescribe anti-convulsion drugs. But we found in the course of our research that that made no difference when we realised brain damage had already occurred, thus making the children subject repeated convulsions," he says.
Because of this research, Dr Idro sits on committees at the World Health Organisation and the International League against Epilepsy.
But he says his work is not as simple as it sounds. He is alive to the everyday harsh realities that sometimes he has no immediate solutions for.
For example he recalls that one seemingly ordinary day in October 2017, he was on duty doing a rounds at the paediatric ward at the National Referral Hospital Mulago.
There was a child who had a blood clot in his brain. It required a delicate but simple procedure -- brain surgery to open and remove the clot and let the child heal. Unfortunately, it could not be done because the scan was dead and the parents could not afford to pay for the service outside the hospital.
The next child was an infant who presented with a rare case of having been born with gastroschisis -- a birth defect of the abdominal (belly) wall where the baby's intestines are found outside of the baby's body, exiting through a hole beside the belly button. He says that, medically, this was an equally easy to handle procedure, but like the blood clot case, the hospital lacked equipment required to do the operation.
"We did not have artificial skin to cover the intestines, so we had no choice but to expose the membranes," he says, and the father of the baby accused the medical team of exposing his child to the cold.
"I did not have an answer to his accusations and I was embarrassed and frustrated in equal measure. I left the ward and I did not return until the next day. I asked my colleague to step in for me," says Dr Idro.
This is the reality of Dr Idro's daily work. Although he is licensed to practise medicine in the United Kingdom and has worked at Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in the UK, he chooses to work in Uganda where he is needed the most.
"It is frustrating when you know what to do but you have no way of doing it. The system in Uganda needs to be fixed and all Ugandan doctors working abroad need to return to work at home," says Dr Idro.
Uganda has only three paediatric neurologists, a situation found on the rest of the continent.
Dr Idro is respected in the medical fraternity for his academic achievements and passion for his profession.
"Uganda produces some of the best doctors in the world and Dr Idro is a good example. He travels abroad to treat patients," says Dr Obuku Ekwaro.
But Dr Idro is not comfortable with that description, saying; "I travel a lot to do clinical research and to teach. I am a visiting professor at International Brain Research Organisation Basil Science, so I teach in Senegal, Morocco and Entebbe."