How politics spreads epidemics, ruins academics - By Olaokun Soyinka

WHAT sort of book is Epidemics, Academics and Politics by Prof. Idris Mohammed? The author provides answer in his introduction emphasising that this is not an autobiography. Indeed, though it contains some historical accounts of his career even dating back to childhood - it is not designed as a comprehensive record of his life and times. Nevertheless, one could say it is, at least, part autobiography, and part contemporary history and the two are blended well in this book with the larger events in recent Nigerian history either providing a backdrop, or with the author finding himself right in the middle of unfolding events.

His account of his early years, for example ends with his witnessing the official ceremony marking Nigeria's independence from Britain. His medical internship ends with him being commandeered to the Biafran war front as a casualty receiving officer.

In service in Nigeria he was in the thick of the biggest outbreak of cerebrospinal meningitis in Africa and was thus on the spot when Pfizer turned up in Nigeria to conduct the controversial Trovan Trial.

He was Chair of the NPI board at a time when its previously commendable performance had plummeted and he uncovered all manner of graft. At UMTH he was one of the pioneer researchers into HIV.

Significant national events aside, Prof. Mohammed is also a rewarding read when it comes to his illuminating and thought provoking insights into some of the key issues that should concern policy makers in this country. He is persuasive on the importance of academic medicine and research and informative when it comes to global politics and public health. He not only puts Nigeria, and sub-Saharan Africa's plight into perspective but has clearly thought further - the hallmark of a true academic - and proffers solutions; advice that our decision makers would do well to heed: after all, he has been right on important issues too often to be ignored.

In addition to autobiography, anecdote, commentary and analysis, the book also contains some biographical sketches. During this eventful and distinguished career, Prof. Mohammed has had the opportunity to interact with many eminent and well known personalities, and he gives the reader the benefit of some fascinating anecdotes and insights.

One comment, or more accurately, a rhetorical question asked by the author in the book that will leave a lasting impression on reader is: How can physicians and healthcare workers practice just medicine in such an unjust world?

This is typical of his consistently compassionate tone, which is reassuring to those who believe there are not enough people who think about the dispossessed in our country. This is a man, after all, eminent as he was nationally and internationally never abandoned Nigeria, and never succumbed to the financial attraction of private medicine.

His use of humour to lighten the intellectual fare and underscore important points is effective: He recounts the following: "A Nigerian returning from the US where he had gone for training under a programme of assistance landed in Lagos. Upon presentation of his passport to immigration officials, one of them saw the word 'AID' stamped on it and shouted to his colleagues: 'AIDS', whereupon they all took to their heels at speed, abandoning the immigration post and the passengers in the queue. They were scared of contracting HIV from the passport!"

While one is still chuckling, he then makes the point that: "Such ignorance fuelled resistance to education and research on HIV/AIDS across the country, making it difficult to engage in informed discussion that would promote awareness of the disease, the manner of its acquisition, and how it might be prevented."

These are some of the consequences of stigmatization which is still too much with us today. It is typical of this book that addresses many weighty and technical issues that the humour is always not too far from the surface and is used effectively to ensure the reader remains engaged.

In the chapter on his involvement in controlling the Cerebrospinal Meningitis epidemic, readers will encounter the combative side of the author; learn about his dogged battle to change the stance of public health authorities, particularly WHO, to accept that mass vaccination was feasible and desirable in Nigeria. He was eventually vindicated.

Another big battle lies at what one believes is the heart of this book - the chapter that deals with immunization. Nigeria is currently facing national and international embarrassment as we hold the world back from eradicating polio. This is traceable directly to the decline in our immunization performance.

In the author's words: "Something must be done urgently to restore faith, competence and performance to routine immunisation. In order to do this, the factors that brought percentage coverage down to 13 per cent must be identified and critically examined."

And a critical examination is what the Prof. Muhammed provides. He was well placed as Chairman of the NPI management board to investigate but, of course, the system frustrated him.

It is interesting to note that the chapter is a compelling read as the author delves deeper into the problems, discovers mind-boggling financial impropriety.

In this case, the result of the fraud and incompetence at the NPI can be said to be directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of dead or disabled Nigerians. If anything calls for a probe - this does.

If that is not enough controversy for you then you have more captivating material in the chapter on the Trovan Trial. The notorious and controversial Pfizer experiment. Once again, the author was at the epicenter. Dependably, he took the right stand - it was he who tried to stop the trial at the beginning. Once again, mysteriously, when he thought he was calling the shots someone somewhere turned the tables. I must not get carried away but leave you to explore this excellent volume. Of course there are some aspects of which I am critical. I do feel that on certain occasion, the author feels so strongly about an issue that he overstates his case.

Another criticism is this. In one of his passages outlining what has gone wrong with Africa, and with Nigeria, he concurs firmly with the generally agreed opinion that years of misrule have left us in this mess.

Prof. Mohammed's career brought him into close contact with leaders who exemplify what he complains about. In such a situation friendship and loyalty can and does develop, and I do not decry this, but, for a man who is clearly and demonstrably so resolutely principled, I find the lack of assessment of our leaders' performance incongruous. That apart, I find little else to be critical about with this book.

Another interesting part is the author's encounters with the SSS, while reader will greatly savour his word-pictures of the eminent, the rich, the notorious and other characters who have passed through his life; to ponder on the harrowing account of his experiences during the Biafran war and to learn important lessons about some of the public health issues that are of profound importance to you and your loved ones.

In the book, the author underscores: "My life experiences have taught me that this world is complex, and the inhabitants unpredictable. I value that exposure to reality so early in my life, because I had otherwise naively assumed that every one was supposed to be good."

One is bound to go away with this impression, although, the author appeared to have learnt this lesson early, he was never to escape his fundamental optimism about human nature. He was taken unawares sometimes, and other times, though alert to the problem he was simply outnumbered and overwhelmed by the powers that be.

Prof Mohammed is not an activist however - it is for those of us who feel strongly enough to act on some of the revelations - he has done his bit. These stories of negligence and corruption in high places from a man as meticulous as Prof. Mohammed are rare. We are used to so much unsupported rumour and innuendo - but we should recognize a serious indictment when it comes along.

This book is an indictment of many of the men and women who have been entrusted to run our public services in Nigeria.

So, as I commend this book to the EFCC for the startling revelations therein could assist our campaign against economic and financial crimes.

It is also a resource material for anyone who wishes to enjoy some illuminating insights into our national condition; anyone that interested in healthcare - whether as a professional or an actual or potential patient, and for those who are interested in moving this country forward.

It is also a companion for readers who want to be entertained by a lucid, articulate and compassionate book; an account of a life well lived.