Dougbeh Chris Nyan Is solving Africa’s Heath Problems with One Test, Many Results
Creating social impact for the greater good of the citizens of Africa is the sole purpose of Dr. Nyan Dougbeh, winner of the 2017 Innovation Prize for Africa Award for Social Impact. Interested in peace and democracy flourishing in Africa, and that poverty, diseases, and despair are alleviated, Nyan has been involved in social activism for human rights and genuine democracy in his home country, Liberia, Africa and the world as a whole.
His work as a medical doctor and research scientist has produced the ‘Nyan-test’, a rapid diagnostic test that can detect and simultaneously differentiate at least three to seven infections at the same time within 10 to 40 minutes. Whereas most testing methods take 3–7 days, this device gives test results in 10 – 40 minutes, thus making a significant leap in the detection and management of infectious diseases on the continent.
In an exclusive interview with Outrepreneurs, Nyan reveals all about his invention and life. Excerpts ….
What is your innovation all about?
My innovation is a diagnostic test that can detect and simultaneously differentiate at least three to seven infections in less than an hour, whereas other detection methods take 3 hours to several days to detect a single infection. You will note that healthcare workers in many underserved communities around the world are limited in their ability to diagnose and properly treat infectious diseases due to the high cost of high-tech equipment and the high skill set required to operate sophisticated equipment. Such equipment are also very heavy, making them difficulty to transport to hard-to-reach settings. My innovation addresses these problems in that it is very simple to use as well as portable and affordable for resource-limited settings. It is also worth mentioning that diseases such as HIV and hepatitis virus infections, which sometimes occur together in a patient or diseases such as Malaria, Ebola, Yellow Fever and Typhoid infections that have similar symptoms can be detected and differentiated using my test. Our test platform is broad to the effect that it can also detect and identify Dengue, West Nile, Zika, and Chikungunya viruses, among others infections of medical and epidemiological nuisance.
What inspired you to come up with this innovation?
My interest in infectious diseases has come a long way from the days of my studies at the University of Liberia through medical school at the Humboldt-University of Berlin in Germany. Look at me! I am from a Continent (Africa) and region of the world where infections of various types are common and patients die from some of these treatable infections for many reasons. Cardinal among these reasons is the clinical problem of wrong-diagnosis, which is a direct result of the lack of affordable, simple, and accurate diagnostic devices that can reach rural settings. This drew my concern over the years. I was also influenced by the dire circumstances of the 2014 Ebola outbreak that affected Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and crossed borders to the United States and Europe. Over the years of my career in infectious diseases, these and other factors pushed me into developing this diagnostic test that is easy to use, cost-effective, mobile enough to be accessible to hard-to-reach rural settings, and which can simultaneously detect multiple infections in less than an hour.
At what stage is your innovation at the moment?
At our biotech start-up, Shufflex Biomed, we are presently at the stage of producing the second generation prototype of the multiplex test, while simultaneously preparing for field trials of the test in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ecuador. At the same time we will be engaging various regulatory bodies for market clearances, starting with the US and West Africa. Parallel to these efforts, we will be going into commercial production of the diagnostic test, making them available to the consumer market. In this vein, we are inviting investment interests in this life-saving diagnostic technology.
What impact will this invention have on the African masses and healthcare system in general?
My interest has always been to serve the African people, the underserved communities on other Continents, and humanity as a whole. Against this backdrop, I project that this invention will enable healthcare workers to make diagnosis quickly; my test will be affordable and accessible to the larger populations because of its low-cost and broad application; particular so, my test will serve rural as well as urban communities; healthcare workers will make diagnosis faster and accurately. This, in turn, will enable patients to receive immediate and appropriate treatment for their infections. This is the wide-ranging impact and benefit that my test will offer the masses of the African people and the global healthcare community.
Rate the state of the African healthcare system today?
The healthcare delivery in Africa is generally in a deplorable and dire state. It is hard to discuss the deplorable status of healthcare in Africa without delving into the neglect of the healthcare sector by various national governments of Africa. As we can see, child mortality rate is high; infections such as Tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria continue to cause high percentages of the deaths on the African continent; national budget-allocations for healthcare is very low; the bedrock of modern medicine such as science, technology, and biomedical research are not substantially supported by many national budgets in Africa; rampant corruption and misuse of donor funds for healthcare, poor policy decisions, and poor management of limited resources are also hurting the quality of healthcare in Africa and contribute to poverty and social inequality among the African people. All of this has to be addressed with a clear vision and determine to change the current status of healthcare in Africa. Africa will have to take corrective initiative and do it for herself.
What can be done to salvage the situation?
The solution is not an easy one. Also, it should not take a quick-fix approach. Instead, this requires a well thought-out formulation and careful implementation of healthcare practical policies that address the needs of the population. We need a complete change of our mind-set in Africa as to what our governments need to prioritize. It requires stamping out corruption in government; it requires allocation of a good percentage of national budgets to healthcare; it requires self-reliance, instead of dependence on external aid from previous colonial masters; it requires clear national visions and strong support for science and medical education as well as for technology and biomedical research. Other continents are doing it – we can do it too. Above all, it requires political stability, peace and security.
What other fields of medicine are you looking to explore? Are you targeting the world at large in these new fields you are looking to explore?
For now, I am focusing on infectious diseases and molecular diagnostics, which are very important components in advancing clinical medicine and improving healthcare delivery in Africa and other parts of the world. As I indicated earlier, my multiplex test covers infectious disease that are found in various parts of the world. For another example, my test covers detection and identification of Dengue, West Nile, Chikungunya and Zika viruses which occur mainly in North and South America, while hepatitis infections and HIV/AIDS, which occur globally are also targeted by my test. As you can see, my test already targets or covers diseases the world over, thus helping to save humanity through pathogen diagnostics.
What do you think would have been the situation in the Ebola affected countries in Africa if your invention was available for use?
The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, I think, was one of the most devastating periods in medical history. It opened our eyes to the inherent weaknesses of the healthcare delivery systems in the sub-region and Africa, by extension. In a panel discussion, which I moderated during the WHO-sponsored Biomedical Laboratory Week held in Liberia in April this year, doctors on the panel agreed with me that misdiagnosis of the Ebola virus infection was a major factor that largely contributed to the fatality. Had my test been available for use during the Ebola epidemic, it definitely would alleviate the challenges healthcare workers faced with differentiating between Ebola infection and malaria or typhoid infection, since these diseases show similar clinical symptoms. My test would have enabled laboratory personnel to detect the Ebola virus faster, treat infected patients promptly, thereby increasing survival time, improving patients’ quality of life and containing the spread of the disease. My test would have helped in preventing cross-border transmission of the virus. Then and now, my test would have been used (or can be used) for surveillance and monitor of the Ebola and other pathogens so as to prevent another outbreak. I hope policy makers in Africa are taking note of the potential of this test and its benefit to the society.
What challenges have you faced while trying to invent? What challenges do you presently face? What do you foresee as future challenges to your work?
There were challenges along the way and all the time; First, I had problems securing funding to support the process of this invention; as a minority, I had to endure negative stereotypes in Western social configurations that demeans Africans and people of African descent as well as underestimates the African ingenuity; I had to fight against cartels and intellectual predators; Interestingly, I had to fight vigorously back against senior colleagues and management authorities who were bent on misdirecting my innovation to serving corporate-greed, instead of first focusing on its impact on the lives of suffering humanity. That is where I challenge African millionaires who are interested in making social impact to step in and help fund the further development of this project, but I cannot find them; regional and national governments are responding with dim urgency, quite contrary to their swift responses to political conflicts or civil wars on the continent. These are the challenges, but I believe that they are surmountable. We are crossing these hurdles one at a time. We are making steady progress.
What word do you have for the upcoming generation of inventors?
First of all, I believe that the future of Africa is in the hands of the youth, the upcoming generation. Hence, they must keep the torch of innovation burning. Our youth should be encouraged to think critically. They must believe in themselves and be resilient in pursuing innovative ideas that will help to rescue the continent from years of exploitation and set back. I also admonish our youth to be determined and persistent even in the midst of meagre resources. Equally so, it is incumbent upon the African governments to provide the supportive programs and the atmosphere where our youths will excel and put their talents to use for the benefit of the Africa and the world.
Dr. Nyan Dougbeh, hails from River Gee County which is quietly nestled in the Southeastern part of Liberia along the Cavalla River in West Africa. He studied zoology and chemistry at the College of Science and Technology of the University of Liberia and earned his MD degree in human-medicine from the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin Medizinische Fakultät – Charité in Germany. He was later trained as a biomedical scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine in the United States. He is dedicated to doing those things that make human society better and fighting for equality, particularly gender and racial equality as well as respect for the environment. He is married and has four beautiful daughters, thus having tremendous Girl Power supporting him in his personal and professional life.
Chiamaka Akuba50 Posts
Chiamaka Akuba is a graduate of Mass Communication of the University of Lagos, Nigeria. She is passionate about emerging markets and entrepreneurship and is actively working with the industry. She loves her conversations challenging and can’t help laughing when you call her ‘Honourable Writer of the Federal Republic'. Chiamaka is a Staff Writer at Outrepreneurs.