Our brains are currently at serious risk because of diseases such as epilepsy, stroke, AIDS, dementia and so on. There is also danger from drug abuse and addictions, especially amongst youths, resulting in behavioural disorders which contribute to some of the major crises the nation is facing. Therefore, brain or mental health problems stand among the most common and severe in Cameroon. In the following interview, Prof. Alfred Kongnyu Njamnshi, lecturer, Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, University of Yaounde I, talks on the gravity and challenges of managing brain health in Cameroon.
Brain Research Africa Initiative, BRAIN, recently organised a conference in Yaounde. May we know why such a gathering at this time?
Please, permit me to begin by saying who we are and what we do. Brain Research Africa Initiative, BRAIN, is an international organisation based in Geneva, Switzerland where we have the status of a public utility organisation. In Cameroon, we partner with several institutions and organisations, the first being the Government, to promote brain health. We have more than two decades of experience in promoting brain health in Cameroon and other African countries through research, training and care provision. During the 2018 National Youth Day, BRAIN celebrated 20 years of research, highlighting one of the most common brain diseases, epilepsy. This was because the event coincided with the International Epilepsy Day. As follow-up to that event, and under the distinguished patronage of the Prime Minister, Head of Government, we organised the first BRAIN Week in Cameroon from July 15-22, 2018. It climaxed with the celebration of the World Brain Day (July 22nd) instituted by the World Federation of Neurology. Several activities were carried out in 7 of the 10 regions of the country. The aim was to bring brain care closer to the people (free consultations), raise awareness on brain disorders (media sensitisation), activate brain networks (partnerships), increase brain capacity (training in hospitals and medical faculties), and nurture future brain generations by celebrating excellence through the Monekosso-Muna BRAIN Lecture. The concept of BRAIN Week in Cameroon was introduced by BRAIN to respond to the ever increasing burden and challenges of brain/mental health, especially within the context plagued by several crises that constitute serious stress and strain on our communities. I have often said that if the brain doesn't work, the rest doesn't matter. We believe that Cameroon needs people with healthy brains to find solutions to its problems and lead the nation to emergence and effective sustainable development.
Your organisation also recently signed an agreement with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Civic Education. How significant is this deal to youth mental health?
The agreement has opened the way for BRAIN to assist the ministry in its noble task of sensitising and educating youth to protect and develop their brains through education. This will enable them to become dynamic, vibrant and constructive citizens committed to building the nation. Also through this agreement, youths with brain diseases will be provided care through BRAIN and its partners. Our organisation could not have had a better opportunity at this time to support the Government in nation-building through the promotion and empowerment of youth!
How serious is the problem of mental health in Cameroon?
Please, compare the situation today to what obtained, say, 10 or 20 years ago. Let me make a precision here. Mental health is a component of brain health. This simply means that we are who we are and do what we do because we all have the marvelous organ in our heads called the brain. We must therefore protect, preserve and develop it to improve the welfare of mankind. Our brains are currently at serious risk because of diseases such as epilepsy, stroke, AIDS, dementia and so on. There is also danger from drug abuse and addictions, especially amongst youths, resulting in behavioural disorders which contribute to some of the major crises the nation is facing. Therefore, brain or mental health problems stand among the most common and severe in Cameroon. Brain disease is the number one cause of disability, with amongst others, serious economic, educational, security and development consequences. Brain diseases and conditions in Cameroon have multiplied several fold over the years. For example, research evidence to which our organisation has contributed significantly shows that Cameroon has one of the highest epilepsy prevalences along river banks. This is strongly associated with river blindness, which itself is a public health problem. The consequences of brain disease on brain development, education, professional, marital and social lives of affected individuals and families are enormous. Many brain conditions affect our youth, thereby rendering the finding of solutions to the issue of prime necessity and extreme urgency.
At the individual level, what must the public do to prevent or mitigate brain health challenges?
We often say of the brain, "Use it or lose it!" Education capacitates the brain for use for development and reduces risks of brain diseases, including dementia. We need to continue to engage in some mental activity (writing, reading, problem-solving, etc) to keep our brains at their best. Furthermore, physical activity and healthy diet improve brain health. Avoiding toxic substances and alcohol abuse preserves our brains. Wearing helmets by professionals at risk, refraining from verbal, physical and psychological traumas, which constitute serious stress factors; and having enough quality sleep, are measures that improve brain health. A person is declared medically and legally dead only when the brain stops functioning. This is why we should not allow our brains to die because they are our future.
What next does your organisation plan to do to promote brain health in and beyond Cameroon?
BRAIN Week in Cameroon will remain an annual event, with subsequent editions involving all 10 regions. Our organisation will actively participate in other events (National Youth Day, International Women's Day, World Stroke Day, World Mental Day, etc). The brain awareness campaign will be taken to other ministries as highly encouraged by the Prime Minister, Head of Government. Finally, the seed that has been sown in Cameroon will hopefully germinate, grow and bear fruit in the Central African Sub-region and beyond. Our vision, mission and passion does not leave out the entirety of the great continent of Africa.