Catholic Scholarship Provider Facilitating Scholar to Manage Notorious Disease in Nigeria

Chiaka Anumudu, a Nigerian Microbiologist conducting research at the University of Valencia under the Harambee Africa International Scholarship program. Credit: Harambee Africa International

A Nigerian microbiologist is working under the Guadalupe Grant of Harambee Africa International (HAI) to find a possible way to contain the severity of a parasitic disease that is affecting millions of people in the West African country.

According to Chiaka Anumudu, a beneficiary of the scholarship program that is targeting hundreds of female scientists in Africa, a majority of people affected by the disease called schistosomiasis are poor and cannot access adequate sanitation.

Explaining her research project to the HAI team, Dr. Anumudu said, “I am working on a common parasitic disease in Nigeria called schistosomiasis. It is spread by a larva that lives in ponds or rivers and enters the body through the skin.”

The microbiologist explains that once the larvae reach the bloodstream, the females lodge near the individual’s bladder, where they lay thousands of eggs.

“These eggs attempt to pass through the tissue into the bladder, and from there into the urine. Urine continues the parasite’s life cycle outside the body and causes the disease to spread further,” the holder of a doctorate in Cellular Parasitology says, and adds, “It affects 29 million people in Nigeria, the poorest of the poor, especially in communities without access to clean water and adequate sanitation.”


According to the Nigerian researcher, the presence of the parasites in the bladder progressively damages the organ and degenerates into bladder cancer if left untreated.

In her research at the University of Valencia under the HAI scholarship, the Parasitology researcher is working on a method that will ascertain the presence of the parasites in individuals for early treatment.  

“We are looking for biomarkers which is simply something we can use to confirm the presence or absence of the disease for the diagnosis of this disease and one of its complications: schistosomiasis-associated bladder cancer,” she says.

The science scholar adds, “We would like to find protein, genetic or microbial biomarkers that help identify people at risk for the disease or pathologies associated with the disease. And all this is done bearing in mind that people can also become infected with malaria.”

“I am trying to see if we can find extracellular vesicles (EVs) in the urine of people with and without the disease,” she says, and explains that EVs are small particles released by cells and enclosed in the membrane.

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The researcher further says that the EVs seem to act as messengers or carriers of information to other parts of the cell, and adds, “We want to study them to determine whether these vesicles can be used to indicate that a person has the disease.”

Dr. Anumudu is one of the numerous female scholars that are working on new scientific inventions under the HAI scholarship that is aimed at creating a pool of researchers who will be required to give back to their communities in the areas of health and environment.

From the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Dr. Celine Tendobi is also working under the program to devise a method that she hopes will efficiently detect Persistent Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) in women before the virus evolves into cancer.

And from Senegal, Coumba Niang is using mathematical tools at the Instituto de Ciencias Matemáticas (ICMAT) in Spain to better understand the physical process that can explain the seasonal variability of the West African monsoon system.

HAI communications official, Rossella Miranda, told ACI Africa that the scholarship program is aimed at boosting the place of women in scientific research.


“The project aims to promote the leadership of African women in scientific research with the aim of strengthening research centers in Africa, especially in the two areas of greatest impact on people: Life and Earth,” she said.

Ms. Miranda further said that the Guadalupe Scholarships Program for African women scientists grants 100 scholarships over 10 years “so that both high-level female scientists and young graduates from sub-Saharan Africa, who are beginning their research careers, can expand their knowledge and discover new fields of research to collaborate effectively in the development of their countries.”

Dr. Anumudu studied at Queen's College Yaba in Lagos, went to the University of Benin City where she graduated in Microbiology and then moved to the University of Ibadan to do her Ph.D. in Cellular Parasitology.

The Nigerian scientist is now a lecturer at the University of Ibadan where she researches, in the Department of Zoology, on protein antibodies in the rural adult population of Igboora.

She narrated that her parents tried to give her the best education possible, even though they had seven siblings and not much means, instilling in her that she could be anything she wanted to be if she tried hard enough.

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Explaining her inspiration to study Biology, Dr. Anumudu said, “Like all science-inclined students, I wanted to study medicine, but it is extremely difficult to get into medicine and I did not get in; so I decided to do Microbiology.”

“When I discovered the world of microorganisms in my second year, and molecular biology in my final year, it was inevitable that I would work in medical research! Trying to provide answers for what makes microorganisms cause disease fascinated me and I did my graduate and Ph.D. in Cellular Parasitology. Now we are seeing what a virus is capable of doing,” she said.

She admitted that in her own country, she would not have been able to complete her research owing to the unavailability of resources, corruption, and lack of funding of research projects.

One challenge that researchers in Nigeria are facing is the lack of funding “due to the apathy of the government and university officials.”

“Although some of the government officials are professors, the field still suffers because of the corruption and lack of transparency in the Administration to grant subsidies and in the calls for applications for research grants,” she said, and added that the needs of scientific researchers are also often misunderstood in the country.

Dr. Anumudu also highlighted the challenge of getting brilliant female researchers in the country to do a doctorate and explore scientific discoveries because of lack of social support and the stereotype of seeing the role of women mainly as housewives, even if they are graduates.

In Nigeria, access to education is supposed to be equal for girls and boys, the Scientist said, and added, “That is what the laws say, however, the reality, especially in rural areas, is that girls are the only ones who are forced to marry at school age or the first ones to drop out of school when there are difficulties in the family.”

She however noted the improvement in girls’ education in Africa’s most populous country saying, “I have to say that in the last three years at my university, I have seen a remarkable increase in girls admitted, and a good number of them Muslim, even fundamentalist.”

Dr. Anumudu however maintained that the leading challenge of education in Nigeria is its lack of quality, especially at the primary and secondary levels in public schools.

“There are many, many young people in Nigeria who dream of improving their lot and strive to study and prepare themselves to get to university, but it is an extremely difficult goal. If they have not had the chance to go to a good school, the education they have received does not adequately prepare them for the university entrance exams, which are very competitive,” the microbiologist says.

She explains, “For example, at my university, every year we have an average of 30,000 young people taking the entrance exams and only about 3,000 are successful. On the other hand, the rising costs of university education, which they have to pay if they have not secured a scholarship, are often prohibitive for them.”

The Guadalupe Scholarship, she said, is a time off from formal teaching and administrative work “to do research in a place where things work.”

The scholarship, she further explained, is an opportunity to work with European scientists who are doing more advanced research. “This will allow me to pass on all that new knowledge to my students, colleagues and ultimately to my university,” she said.

She noted that her study in Spain will allow her to move several steps further towards the development of a simple diagnostic test for schistosomiasis endemic in her areas.

“I will have arguments to create more public awareness of the disease and develop partnerships to promote the development of the test,” the researcher said.

She provided a difference between a scientist conducting research in Nigeria and one studying in a more developed country, saying that there are more opportunities to succeed abroad.

“Here the working tools are available and access to facilities is taken for granted. There is always electricity, water reagents or internet and that you don’t have to pay extra to use them, whereas in Nigeria those things are difficult to achieve in our environment. They often require creativity,” she said.

The researcher was asked to quantify the contribution of African women to the science of their country and continent. She said, “In my opinion, African women scientists are making a contribution that is often neither quantified nor sufficiently visible in scientific publications.”

“As a result, African women scientists are not given much consideration because their contribution is not highlighted in an obvious way, or they are not in very visible positions. A good number of them juggle family and work and often cannot get that far in their careers or be nominated for really important positions,” she said, and added, “In most cases it is difficult to quantify because we don’t have a platform available to do so. There are not enough opportunities to step up, and even if there are, it seems like we are being shortchanged!”

Dr. Anumudu says that one of the things that will help development in Africa is to help girls reach more equal heights and encourage them to aspire to the top.

Additionally, there is a need to dispel superstitious beliefs that still exist about human diseases, the researcher says.

She asserts that women are the heart of the family, saying, “to educate women is to educate the family and the community.”

“Scientific research, especially by women, will help raise awareness when talking about women's issues and eliminate superstitions,” she says, and adds, “In Africa there are many unclassified diseases and syndromes and scientists in fields such as climate, agriculture, waste treatment, water treatment can help to elucidate them. The problem is that the results are not always accepted by society.”

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.