August 18, 2019

How Ghanaians have inspired medical discoveries

In recent times, Ghana has been in the limelight for creations such as the Azonto dance and Afrobeats. But long before the recent acclaim, the country had inspired many medical discoveries.

Dr. John Farrell Easmon, a young Sierra Leonean doctor, applied for a job in the Gold Coast colony (now Ghana) in 1880. Initially, he got non-medical jobs but later rose to the position of chief medical officer. Throughout the medieval times, doctors including Hippocrates and Gilles de Corbeil described a severe febrile illness with dark urine as a symptom. After 10 months of administrating the medical department in the Gold Coast, Easmon wrote the first clinical analysis. In 1884, he described the dark urine symptoms, coining the term Blackwater disease. Blackwater disease is now known as haemoglobinuric fever. Easmon also showed the association between Blackwater disease and malaria.

Despite Easmon’s clinical description, his contribution was ignored by the colonial medical service. By reporting his findings, he is deemed to be the first native West African to have contributed a scientific article to a journal.

There us also Cicely Williams. She came to the Gold Coast in 1929. Having qualified as a part of the first batch of women medical doctors from Oxford, she had to look elsewhere in the colonial administration for possible employment. When she finished medical school, the male medical doctors were returning from World War I. This meant there would be short supply of employment for women. Shortly after arriving in the colony, she made an observation that sick African children who were not separated from their mothers recovered faster. At the time, the colonial policy was to separate sick children from their mothers in the hospital wards.

Williams correctly stated that kwashiorkor was entirely a new clinical entity in an article in the Archives of Disease in Childhood. She described kwashiorkor as darkened spots and peeling skin on infants. It will take over 20 years for Kwashiorkor to be widely accepted as a nutritional disease.

Yellow fever was lethal in the 1900s as its pathogenesis was not fully understood. Cuban Carlos Finlay had earlier in 1881 correctly suggested that Culex cubensis (now known as Aedes aegypti) was the mosquito vector for the disease. As much as he tried, he could not prove it. At the turn of the 19th Century, Walter Reed proved Finlay’s theory.

Far in the Gold Coast, on the commission of the Rockefeller Foundation, Adrian Stokes isolated the causative virus from a 28-year old Gold Coaster called Asibi. Max Theiler would devise a mechanism for inoculating mice with the Asibi strain of virus and later, with others, developed the 17D strain that is still the basis of yellow fever vaccine. For this, Theiler was awarded the 1951 Nobel Prize.

Albert Nii Tackie was the first Ghanaian to be awarded a PhD in Pharmacology and co-founded the Center for Plant Medicine Research, Akwapim Mampong. He researched into alkaloids. His research led to the naming of a new alkaloid after him (cryptotackiene). Cryptotackiene is extracted from the roots of Cryptolepis sanguinolenta which is otherwise called Ghanaian quinine and has anti- Plasmodium activity.

Sickle cell is one of the common genetic disorders in Africa, south of the Sahara. Ghanaian physician Prof. Felix Konotey-Ahulu co-discovered Haemoglobin Korle-Bu and Haemoglobin Osu-Christiansborg. Both of these are rare mutations in the beta globin protein structure of the sickle cell haemoglobin.

To prevent gastrointestinal water and electrolyte imbalances, Ghanaian surgeon E.A. Badoe developed a replacement fluid therapy comprising sodium, potassium, chloride and dextrose or fructose for energy.

Surgeon J.K.M. Quartey developed a surgical procedure for urethral strictures using a transverse distal penile as a flap.

With these contributions from Ghana, the country has written its name in the annals of world science history.

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