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     Volume 6 Issue 30 | August 3, 2007 |

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Cover Story

The Science of Saving Lives

Srabonti Narmeen Ali

Dr. Firduasi Quadri spends hours at the lab researching diarrhoeal pathogens

Living in Bangladesh, for most people, means being susceptible to numerous infectious diseases including cholera, shigellosis as well as other viral illnesses that cause diarrhoea. While diarrhoea seems like an every day problem that one may recover from eventually, the truth is that it is not only dangerous, but also life threatening, especially for children. Approximately three million children all over the world die every year from diarrhoea. Those children who do not die, but suffer from episodes of diarrhoea experience under-nutrition, which may affect their health on a long-term basis.

It is for this reason that Dr. Firdausi Qadri, an international scientist at the Laboratory Sciences Division at ICDDR,B (International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh), and her team spend hours conducting research on diarrhoeal pathogens such as Vibrio cholerae and enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli, more commonly known as ETEC , in order to formulate vaccines that can prevent such diseases. On average over half a million children die from these two diarrhoeal illnesses.

“The prevention of these diseases is extremely important,” says Dr. Qadri “Children suffering from frequent episodes of diseases cannot grow to their full capacity. Administering vaccines to children can decrease episodes of infectious diseases. We are, in fact, attempting to improve lives of children and to reduce the overall burden of disease in the country.”

Dr. Quadri with colleagues at ICDDR,B

Dr. Qadri began her career in 1981 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Dhaka. She obtained her PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Liverpool in 1980. Prior to this she showed determination and promise in her particular field by obtaining First Position in First Class in both her BSc (Honours) and MSc in Biochemistry at the University of Dhaka. Being drawn to the research aspect of science, she joined ICDDR,B in 1986 as a Post-doctoral Fellow and has been there since, working her way up to her current title of Senior Scientist and the Head of the Immunology Unit at the Laboratory Division of ICDDR,B. Her penchant for teaching can be seen in her lab, where students from both local and international universities, join her team as interns.

“At ICDDR,B, I was finally able to apply all the information and the knowledge that I gained from my earlier training ,” says Dr. Qadri. “I had the opportunity to do all the things that I wanted to do in terms of research. To date we have the best laboratory facilities in the country. What makes my job interesting is that we are connected to the hospital and also have activities in the community, which is where all our questions come from and it is up to us to find the answers, which proves to be challenging, but also helpful in the long run.”

Usually there are two seasons, in spring and in post-monsoon, in Bangladesh when diarrhoea becomes most prevalent. It is important to bear in mind that both the pathogen and host-related factors contribute to the spread and transmission of diseases. This makes it extremely challenging and at the same time difficult to find easy solutions. ICDDR,B is an ideal hub for researching on such diseases, and scientists here not only collaborate with researchers in Bangladesh , but also with investigators from all over the world.

Dr. Quadri has a genuine desire to make her work be beneficial to the general public

“We are in a very advantageous position,” says Dr. Qadri. “The problem is that, what works for one population may not work for another. There are various factors that affect susceptibility to pathogens and how people who are the hosts for these pathogens, respond to them. These include the environmental factors, age group, genetics and the nutritional status. For example, zinc deficiency or presence of certain blood groups may increase susceptibility. It is also important to find out what is suitable and applicable for people specific to Bangladesh. Another aspect that ICDDR,B firmly believes in and works towards making treatment available and prevention factors such as vaccines, affordable for the mass population in Bangladesh. It doesn't make sense to do all this research, and not make it cheap and within the means of the common people. After all, it is the disadvantaged people, who lack access to clean water and proper sanitation that are prone to these diarrhoeal infections. Communities who have good living conditions are less susceptible to these diseases.”

Thinking about the community and how it will benefit from her work is partially what makes Dr. Qadri stand out. After all many scientists may research and try to find cures and vaccines for diseases, but how many of them actually focus on the logistics and how their work will constructively help people in general?

Today she is a professional member of a number of international and national societies. She is also a Senior Associate of the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is on the Steering Committee on Diarrhoeal Disease Vaccines, WHO, Geneva. In 2006 she was elected Fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (FIDSA) and, as icing on the cake of her already overwhelmingly impressive achievements, was selected earlier this year by the Bangladesh Academy of Sciences (BAS) Gold Medal award for her research in Biological Sciences.

Dr. Quadri and her young, talented team

These awards are all symbols and recognition of Dr. Qadri and her team's significant contribution to international scientific research on diarrhoeal diseases; particularly in the case of the bacterial diarrhoea such as V. cholerae and ETEC both of which are very common in our children as well as adults. However, apart from this a lot of work by other investigators at ICDDR,B have contributed to work on rotavirus which is very common in infants and young children. It can be described in layman's terms as stomach flu, infantile diarrhoea or acute viral gastroenteritis. Characterised by vomiting and diarrhoea, rotavirus is found in both developing and developed countries and causes up to 600,000 deaths every year. Two vaccines are now being tested for efficacy and effectiveness in different countries of the world.

“A lot of research results from ICDDR,B, have been used to prepare and formulate vaccines ” she says. “The experience and familiarity with diarrhoeal diseases from the team at ICDDR,B contribute to development of vaccines all over the world.”

With all these accomplishments under her belt, one has to wonder whether she has any time for herself, but Dr. Qadri believes in finding a healthy equilibrium between her work and her home. She has three children, whom she sees as her main sources of inspiration. The eldest, Ashfaq, is currently working at Morgan Stanley. Her younger son Saadat is studying Electrical Engineering at McGill University and the youngest of the three, her daughter Kashfi, is at Smith College. Despite her taxing workload and her dedication to her career, Dr. Qadri does not find it at all difficult to maintain a balance between her life at home and her career.

“You just have to learn to organise yourself, and also prioritise yourself,” says Dr. Qadri. “One has to be very strong and systematic to efficiently manage everything. I also think that those of us who live in Bangladesh have a relatively good support system that makes it much easier to manage both. However, being a woman makes your life much more demanding and you have to work harder at making things work."

Being a woman does indeed make life more demanding, especially since a successful woman like Dr. Qadri work in primarily male-dominated fields and sometimes may come across gender-based ego-related hurdles. However, Dr. Qadri does not allow such impediments to deter her or get in her way. Rather she sees it as a part of life and something that she should not give too much attention to, lest it distract her from doing her job.

"Being a successful woman means facing certain obstacles in your way," she says. "But I feel that people will start taking you seriously and respect you if you show that you mean business. I have come across certain situations where people -- both men and women -- have been jealous, but it is best to not allow yourself to indulge in these matters and try to do your job the best you can. I think ICDDR,B has also set an example for us by holding training sessions that make people aware and conscious of gender-related issues."

Dr. Qadri's pragmatic outlook to gender-related issues probably also comes from the fact that she grew up in a family where women were not considered any different from men. Her mother, Naushaba Khatun is a Professor in the Department of Psychology of the University of Dhaka and her grandmother, although not formally educated, always stressed the importance of education for both girls and boys. Having a career and working was not an option, but rather a necessity.

It is safe to assume that, necessity or not, Dr. Qadri's career is not only very accomplished, but also inspiring. While her work may not be fully comprehended by the thousands of masses it ultimately benefits, it is definitely, slowly, but surely, making its very significant mark and providing a stepping-stone for bettering the health and consequently, life of people all over Bangladesh.


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