By Sunday Ani

Monday, June 27, marked the beginning of a concerted effort to tackle a neglected bacterial pathogen, helicobacter pylori, simply referred to as H. pylori, which has been ravaging Africa. It was the day that the director of research, Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Nigeria Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), Yaba, Lagos, Professor Stella Smith, unveiled a team of African experts dedicated to advancing research on H. Pylori to form the African Helicobacter and Microbiota Study Initiative LTD/GTE. It was indeed a gathering of the world’s best scientists in the field of molecular biology.

In her welcome address, Smith described H. Pylori as a type of bacteria that, when it gets into the digestive tract of humans, could cause ulcers in the lining of the stomach or upper part of the small intestine and ultimately lead to stomach cancer in some individuals.

“The pathogen has been implicated in an array of gastric disorders, including peptic ulcer disease, gastritis, gastric mucosa associated with lymphoid tissue, lymphoma and gastric adenocarcinoma,” she added.

Smith’s efforts and concerns about the disease date back to her pre-doctoral degree days in Manchester, England, with a European Union scholarship. She said she was working on Campylobacter jejuni and C. coli in early 1994 when her supervisor announced to his students that he had caught the bug. “While wondering in my mind if he was referring to an insect, he photocopied two pages on H. pylori, which I had never heard about until that moment, and gave to me and, after reading through, I thought it was meant for Caucasians. But to my surprise, on getting home that evening, my landlady’s (Nigerian) sister announced to us that she did a test in her pregnant state and she was informed she had H. pylori. There and then, she asked me if I knew anything about H. pylori, and that was when it dawned on me that it was a disease that affected all humans and not only the Caucasians.” she said.

According to her, the incident was what aroused her interest to do further research into the subject after her PhD, the cumulative efforts of which is the assemblage of experts from several African countries to advance H. pylori research, determine its accurate prevalence, diagnosis and management in Africa.

She noted that 50 per cent of the world’s population is reportedly infected with H. pylori, with people of different races and regions around the world having varied levels of severity and pathological outcomes: “As far back as 1994, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organisation (WHO), categorised H. pylori as a Class 1 carcinogen. Considering the status of this pathogen, researchers, policymakers and governments in America, Europe, and Asia have paid keen attention in the diagnosis, treatment, management and possible control of H. pylori,” she said.

The absence of any concerted efforts in Africa to tackle the disease as it has been done in Europe, America and Asia, coupled with her desire to know more about the disease led her into contact with experts across the world. In the course of that search also, she knew about the European Helicobacter and Microbiota Study Group (EHMSG), which has existed for over 30 years and that was what informed her decision to also assemble African experts to form the African Helicobacter and Microbiota Study Group (AHMSG), which is today registered as African Helicobacter and Microbiota Initiative LTD/GTE, with its headquarters in NIMR, Lagos, Nigeria. The initiative, apart from serving as advisory body on research in the area of H. pylori, it will also advance H. pylori research, determine its prevalence, diagnosis, treatment and associated complications in Africa

She noted that H. pylori is more or less a neglected pathogen in Africa and called for more attention in that regard, even as she stated that the AHMSG was kicking off with the support of the EHMSG, which has been in existence for over 30 years and responsible for developing and updating the famous Maastricht /Florence Consensus

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The elated Prof Smith expressed her gratitude to Christian Schulz, Peter Malfertheirner and Richen Medical Science Group from Europe, whose unalloyed support and partnership with AHMSG has led to the ground breaking event, which has ushered in a research movement that would curb and bring H. pylori infection in Africa to the barest minimum.

The AHMSG, which has Prof Smith as its President and Dr. Mohamed Alboraie of the Al Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt, as the Secretary General, has 13 others members, whose areas of expertise ranges from gastroenterology to surgery, clinical microbiology, medical microbiology,  hepatology, microbiology and molecular epidemiology.

The NIMR director-general congratulated members of the group for coming up with the idea but noted that oftentimes, Africa is not well represented in such matters, even when Africa has, perhaps, the most diverse constituents.

“So, we will not be able to get appropriate benefits from such things, but this is different because it is focused on Africa. Therefore, it puts Africa at an advantageous position to be able to research and find solutions that are applicable to Africa, and of course, to the rest of the world,” he said.

He also said: “I want to congratulate the group for this and also Prof. Smith for putting up this number of her colleagues from different countries. It only shows that she is very well recognised in the field.”

In his goodwill message, the vice-chancellor, Mountain Top University, Ibafo, Ogun State, attributed the school’s rating as having one of the best molecular biology laboratories in Nigeria to the institution’s partnership with Prof Smith. “You are part of our success story as your partnership and support in provision of research and academic training available in biological sciences cannot be quantified. We hope that our students will benefit from this initiative as we explore possible ways of partnership and collaboration. I pray that Africa and the world at large will benefit from this initiative,” he said.

The Vice Chancellor, University of Lagos, represented by the former Deputy Vice Chancellor, Prof. O Familoni said the initiative by Africa’s best minds was a welcome development because a lot of H. pylori patients experience a lot of difficulties in the treatment of the bacterium. “Whereas other bacteria are treated within seven days, this particular one takes about a month to be treated. I am confident that their studies and research in this area will give hope to patients that are suffering from the ailment. The fact that Africa infection is being treated in Africa is also a plus because it will guarantee a better treatment than elsewhere in Europe. Africans know their problem better than any other person,” he said.

He stressed if Prof Smith could be part of the initiative, it means that the group was highly knowledgeable. “You can be assured that whatever collaboration and expectation from the University of Lagos is already given and we expect that very soon, our school and the initiative will have a collaboration,” he added.

The scientists that graced the occasion were from Europe (Germany, France and Spain), Asia (Japan), and Africa (Nigeria, Egypt, Cameroon, South Africa, Morocco, Tanzania and Senegal).