Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Supporting science

Aklilu Lemma
(photo courtesy Right Livelihood Award)

Back in 1964, an Ethiopian scientist named Aklilu Lemma was investigating a species of freshwater snail that transmitted schistosomiasis. His observations led him to a discovery of potential benefit not only in his own country but also globally.

Schistosomiasis, or bilharzia, is a chronic disease caused by parasites – blood flukes, or trematode worms – that are carried in the snails and released as larvae into water, where they can come in contact with humans. Adult worms can live in blood vessels or body tissues, causing abdominal pain, diarrhoea and damage to internal organs, and sometimes death.

Over 200 million people in Africa, Asia and parts of the Caribbean and South America are infected by schistosomiasis, with many more at risk, especially in communities that depend on agriculture or fishing, or where people do domestic chores or children play in lakes and streams, or where safe drinking water and sanitation are lacking.

While studying the snails in the north of Ethiopia, Aklilu Lemma found high numbers of dead snails in water downstream from where people were washing clothes. They were using a berry plant called Endod, or African soapberry, for soap, as people there had done for generations. Lemma collected some live snails in a container and asked one of the women to put some of the Endod suds into it; the snails died.

Lemma and his colleagues went back to their lab and did further studies on the Endod plant. Two years later, in 1966, Lemma founded the Institute of Pathology at Addis Ababa University and continued his research on the berries. The potential for Endod as a molluscicide was significant because although alternatives were available, they were manufactured elsewhere and were prohibitively expensive. Lemma’s hope was that simple techniques could allow people to grow, process and use Endod to control schistosomiasis in their communities.

For the next ten years, Lemma’s studies on Endod showed its promise as a natural, biodegradable, safe and effective substance for preventing schistosomiasis, and other possible uses. His research with scientists in North America led to the discovery that Endod was also effective against zebra mussels which were infesting the Great Lakes and other waterways.

In the 1980s, though, they ran into roadblocks in the development and testing of Endod, because of the need to verify Endod’s safety for humans and the environment and lack of funds and support for the necessary tests. Lemma's mission to develop a low-cost and locally available control for schistosomiasis remained incomplete.

Nonetheless, in 1989, Aklilu Lemma along with Legesse Wolde-Yohannes, also of Addis Ababa University, were presented with the Right Livelihood Award "for discovering and campaigning relentlessly for an affordable preventative against bilharzia".
Their long experience raises several questions, including how best to support science in African countries through development, testing and application, and how to ensure that communities with local knowledge benefit from scientific discoveries.

Lemma’s view was that indigenous knowledge should be respected, and that African capacity for scientific research needed support. In his acceptance speech for the Right Livelihood Award, Lemma said, "I believe that the best future course for Africa is to invest in efforts to build on the endogenous capabilities of its own people."

Aklilu Lemma had a doctorate in pathobiology and held senior academic and advisory positions in Ethiopia. He also worked in various capacities with the UN and at Johns Hopkins University. He and Wolde-Yohannes created the Endod Foundation in Ethiopia in 1992. Lemma died in 1997.

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