Brila FM, Trovan, Technology And All That…


Radio sports channel, Brila FM, the brainchild of the indefatigable Larry Izamoje, is currently running a public awareness message that shows that there is only one world for “Goal” from one language group in Nigeria to the other – about 300 of them! No matter the tongue, all our languages have the same word for “goal”.

Nigerians should listen to the message, which in itself has immense entertainment value for its dramatic quality.

We are a country in which consensus on any issue is hard to achieve. It seems that each and every one of the more than 150 million people who make up its population has his/her opinion on any issue at any given time.

Where the issue is clear enough for us to instantly agree on, there are professional agents of disunity to introduce extraneous factors into the equation to cause division. The prism could be that of religion or ethnicity. And before you know it, the newspapers and airwaves are awash with different interpretations.

Is the situation about to change? What has technology got to do with it?

But for the tragic dimensions of the 1996 meningitis epidemic in Kano and Pfizer’s trial of its drug Trovan, it would have been apt to say “All’s well that end’s well” to the recent pay-outs by the Meningitis Trust Board to verified participants at the Trovan trial.

Reports recently had it that compensations have been made to some qualified claimants of the Healthcare/Meningitis Trust Fund and that more beneficiaries will be announced as more DNA results are received from the testing laboratory. This seems to signal an end to the bickering over the most acceptable approach to managing the compensations. At a point, what was evidently the most efficacious option didn’t go down as the most acceptable to some stakeholders. But what no one doubted was the need for urgent implementation of the July 2009 settlement agreement between Pfizer and the Kano State government, which preferred the DNA approach.

It was always necessary to neutralise the machinations of opportunists. For example, although about 200 persons participated in the trial, some 547 people are known to have staked claims to compensation arising from the 1996 Trovan trials. The claimants offered themselves as direct parents of participants or legal guardian of participants.

If steps were not taken to forestall fraud, compensations to 547 would have significantly reduced the impact of the gesture to the actual claimants, who are about a third of this figure. It would be like an all-comers affair where all one had to do was show up and receive a slice of the largesse.

Of course, the controversy over the acceptability – or otherwise – of DNA testing was always unnecessary, given that it is most reliable and internationally recognised method of genetic identity verification. What made opposition to the use of the method surprising is that the testing had been assigned to a state-of-the art laboratory.

In the end, however, sanity prevailed and claimants were educated on the purpose of the DNA test in their native language before they were taken through the rigorous process involving signatures and thumb prints to indicate consent; whereupon a simple cotton swab was used to obtain saliva samples from claimants’ mouths. These were conducted by local medical staff with knowledge of the local languages (Hausa and English).

During a discussion with some journalists who had been following the Trovan case for quite some time, I gathered that the fresh samples of cerebrospinal fluids of participants were compared with those obtained during the 1996 Trovan clinical study,

Inevitably, the large number of claimants – 547 individuals – meant a longer period of DNA testing and analysis, including the Board’s review. I was gratified to know that neither Pfizer nor the government of Kano State was vested with the responsibility for determining eligibility for compensation as that responsibility belongs to the Board.

From the commentaries one has heard and read, it appears that people are generally pleased with the outcomes of the DNA testing procedures. Considering the tragic nature of the epidemic and the long litigation coupled with our people’s belief in destiny, I won’t be surprised if it turns out that not all the possible claimants showed up for the exercise in spite of the 547 claimants that went through the DNA test. Some religious zealots actually believe that such a payment on account of the tragic circumstances is haram.

Let me come back to the issue of technology. Considering that technology was also very critical to the conduct of the Nigerian general elections in April, even admitting that the results of the elections are being contested in court, it does seem, therefore that we are making progress somehow.

Whatever the legal issues that are being challenged about them, the 2011 elections were a marked improvement on, and significant departure from, previous elections in this country. The electoral process depended largely on technology. And given the rancour-free outcome of the use of DNA testing to verify the victims of the Trovan trial, no one is henceforth going to hold technological approaches to resolving similar issues in suspicion.

Brila FM has taught us that there is only one word for “goal”. Thanks to technology, that message is heard all over the country. In the same vein, the Meningitis Board has shown us that things can be done transparently with the use of technology to sort out the wheat from the chaff. With the state-of-the-art medical complex at an advanced stage of construction in Kano as part of the settlement process, perhaps we shall soon be able to say “All is well that ends well.”

·Malik  Mohammed is an Abuja-based commentator on public health issues.

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