How Nigeria can manage another wave of COVID-19 pandemic —Akinde, medical doctor and leader of TNCI

Cassandra Akinde is a medical doctor, a humanitarian and an SDGs advocate. An African LinkedIn Influencer for Health/Medicine and the team lead of The Neo Child Initiative (TNCI), she would soon be finishing her master’s programme on tropical medicine and international health with emphasis on neglected tropical diseases. In this interview by KINGSLEY ALUMONA, she speaks about why she always wanted to become a medical doctor, her humanitarian endeavours among others.


As a child, did you always want to become a medical doctor? And, who motivated you to become one?

As far as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to become a medical doctor. My brother and I used to play pretend games as children. We used to dress up as doctors and pretend we were surgeons. We had funny names for each other adopted from various series we saw, like Chicago Hope. My biggest motivation came from my parents who’re also medical doctors and humanitarians. They have been my biggest cheerleaders and source of inspiration throughout my life.


What was your most trying time as an undergraduate medical student and how did you manage it?

Oh my! Medical school was tough. I remember at the beginning of my second year, I failed two continuous assessment tests and was extremely upset. It was my first and last failure in medical school. To ensure this didn’t happen to me again, I began studying harder with like-minded individuals, attended group discussions and participated in quizzes. This helped me a lot with my memory and the ability to excel in medical school.


You have a track record in non-profit, leadership and community health advocacy. Do you have any professional certification for these engagements?

Yes. I enrolled at Lagos Business School, Pan Atlantic University, where I was certified for Non-Profit Leadership and Management. I also obtained a certificate from University of Washington for Leadership and Management in Health.


You would soon be completing your MSc at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine LSHTM. Why this particular school? And, what is your thesis about?

I chose LSHTM because it’s a world-renowned university which has produced excellent calibre of health experts, global leaders and policy makers. I was particularly interested in the research excellence and prestigious study programmes in public health and tropical medicine.

My thesis is on institutional scabies outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa. I looked at the prevalence of scabies and outbreak investigation methods in various institutional settings.


After your studies in the UK, would you like to return to Nigeria to help battle the many tropical diseases troubling the country? Or do you have other plans?

Yes, I’ll return to Nigeria.  I intend to apply my newfound knowledge in designing more robust disease control programmes and build more cross-institutional research collaborations to further evaluate infectious disease outbreak preparedness and prevention in sub-Saharan Africa.


It is in the news that another wave of COVID-19 pandemic is imminent in many countries, including Nigeria. How would you advice the Nigerian government on how to pragmatically manage this imminent pandemic?

Well, I think that, firstly, COVID-19 messaging and risk communication must be evidence-driven, proactive and be based on a strong foundation of community trust and feedback,  It must continue to highlight the importance of adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions and target young people specifically, warning them about the danger of transmitting the disease to  their peers and vulnerable groups, including populations older than 60 and those with comorbidities. Not wearing of face masks or attending large public gatherings should continue to attract exorbitant fines and penalties.

Secondly, I would advise that diagnostic capacity for COVID-19 be more expanded across all states in Nigeria, especially Northern Nigeria, and made more easily available and free to all the citizens who fit the high-risk assessment criteria. It’s also important to amplify the work Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has been doing with digital contact tracing on larger scale and leverage mobile positioning to identify proximity of confirmed cases and their contacts on sub-national, state and local government levels.

Finally, I would suggest more collaborative partnership among public sector, corporate bodies, non-governmental organisations, religious institutions, civil societies and private sector engagement to provide more funding towards material resources, research, health infrastructure, access to new health technologies such as 3D printing of face shields and acceleration of  the development and procurement of vaccines.


If you were the minister of health, how would you manage the incessant brain drain of Nigerian doctors to other countries?

If I were the Minister of Health, I would focus all my attention on increasing and retaining health-human resource supply and service demands in order to meet the overwhelming needs of Nigeria`s growing population.

I would start this by increasing the funding to the health sector by at least 15 per cent from the current 4.5 per cent with emphasis on improving health infrastructure and  primary care facilities, increment in remuneration, improving working environment conditions and implementing various benefit packages and health insurance for healthcare professionals and their families.

I’ll also provide incentives (e.g. subsidies, housing support, transportation support, monetary value) to assist and retain medical doctors and other healthcare workers in rural areas through collaboration with the local government authorities, private sector, civil societies and religious institutions.

Finally, I would invest in international training of medical students to expose them to evidence-based teaching, practical skills and professional development opportunities. Particularly, being a Chevening Scholar, I can see the importance of investing knowledge, skills and tools gained in host countries and importing it back to Nigeria.  In medical schools, I would eliminate the quota system to increase the number of doctors graduating in the country annually. I would also adopt Cuba`s model of exporting doctors and their services to humanitarian settings to ensure national and global health security.


You are the team lead of The Neo Child Initiative. Recently, what child health initiative programmes are you working on? And, in what ways does your initiative contribute to local/national health policies concerning babies and their mothers?

Currently, we’ve been working on COVID-19-related projects, including school outbreak preparedness and WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene), some of which are still in the pipeline. My organisation has contributed to local/national health policies through advocacy, research and innovation. Furthermore, engagement of community leaders and key stakeholders has always been our top priority to influence policy.


Leading Ladies Africa (LLA) listed you as one of the hundred most inspiring women in Nigeria. In what ways do you inspire Nigerians? And what two remarkable achievements do you think landed you the LLA recognition?

I think I inspire younger generations by just being the best version of myself I can be, being a humanitarian and advocating for Sustainable Development Goals. I like to use my social media handles as tools for storytelling and health information dissemination. I try as much as possible to mentor school children and young people to fulfil their potential by providing them with tools to become future changemakers. I believe that my proven track record of community development work and extensive networking skills played a role in my nomination and subsequent recognition by LLA.


You are an African LinkedIn Influencer for Health/Medicine. What does this job mean? And what kind of people do you influence and why?

As I understand it, this entails me producing relevant and verifiable health content taking into cognisance psychosocial, cultural and behavioural factors. The health information is meant to empower all and sundry to make informed choices about their health and lifestyle. I just enjoy sharing my opinions about global health issues and life experiences including the highs and the lows.


Between Nigeria and the UK, where would you like to raise your family/children and why? And have you ever experience any form of racism in the UK?

To be honest, I’ve not thought about that yet.  It’s not part of my plans for now. No, I’ve not experienced racism or any form of discrimination during my time in the UK.


Whenever you are in the UK, what two things do you miss about Nigeria? And, what two things about the UK make you not to want to return to Nigeria?

I miss my immediate family, and I miss my dear friends. What I’ll miss most about the United Kingdom is the diversity of food and better quality of life. I really enjoyed studying with no qualms about lack of constant electricity supply or good internet service.


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