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A Woman must be able to manage and co-ordinate her family and work life – Prof. Ibironkae Akinsete

Ibironke Akinsete is a Professor of Haematology whose  fascination with blood and the formation of the human body informed her choice of career. Born 72 about years ago, Prof. Akinsete graduated in Medicine from Aberdeen University, Scotland and acquired scholarships, prizes and fellowships in Haematology. She is retired now and serves as consultant to the Department of Haematology, College of Medicine, University of Lagos.

An expert in the area of women’s health who has distinguished herself in her chosen career, she is a founding member of the Society for Women and AIDS in Africa, Nigeria (SWAAN) and served as its President till 2000. She is a Life Patron of SWAAN, former Chairperson, National Agency for the Control of AIDS and Presidential Adviser on HIV/AIDS.  ……. University of London, Institute of Clinical and Experimental Virology, Western Germany among others.
She is currently the Chairman of PathCare Healthcare Medical Laboratory, Lagos.

Tell us briefly what Haematology is all about.
As a Haematologist, you first qualify as a medical doctor and then this is one of the specialties of a medical doctor. It has to do with the blood and how it is formed in the body. It involves the normal processes of blood and diseases of the blood; all diseases of the blood, the abnormalities of the blood, such as anemia  when one is short of blood, the different types of anemia, and different types of cancers that can affect the blood and the circulatory system. This is what Haematology is all about, like the blood system and transfusion, the collection of blood, the screening of blood, everything that has to do with blood

A lot of people run away from blood. How come it got you fascinated?
It is fascinating because, without blood the human system can not work or function. Blood is life and because there is just no substitute, people have tried to manufacture artificial blood but it does not have the same properties and qualities of natural blood that the almighty God put in our body; nobody has been able to do that.

How long have you been in the medical profession?
Like I told you, I will be 72 in May. I qualified in a medical school aboard in 1963 and went on to do my post graduate (programme). After that, I came back to Nigeria and I have worked in Nigeria since 1968. First, at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, where I started as a lecturer and later became a professor. I retired in 2003 but I have had other assignments since then. I have been kept busy. I am now Chairman of PathCare Healthcare Medical Laboratory Centre.  I am also a trustee of AIDS Prevention Initiative of Nigeria.  I was also Chairman, National Action Committee of AIDS.

How would you describe your time at NACA?
My time at NACA was very challenging. I got involved with AIDS many years before, when I attended a conference in Europe; the presentation was on HIV.  That was at the beginning of the epidemic. The presentation showed that they had discovered a new kind of disease and, at that time, they had not even identified the virus that was affecting gay men in America, and in African women. So, a group of us decided that we need to form an NGO which will sensitise and educate women on HIV. That was how I got involved in HIV issues; that was how it all started. I was the first President of Nigerian Society for Women and AIDS in Africa. We have the Nigerian chapter, the Ghana chapter, the Tanzanian chapter; it’s all over African. Our mandate was to sensitise women, because women are the ones who bear the brunt. It is easily transmitted from man to woman than from woman to man. And, because of poverty, the low esteem of women, the way women are treated as second-class citizens in the society and their economic status, they are much more vulnerable. So, we felt that we, as women who know about it, should take it up and do something about it. That was how I got involved.

And then, I was invited by the former president, Obasanjo. He approached me and said: “We have this problem with HIV/AIDS. Can you help?” I was like why me? I knew of the challenges. When I arrived Abuja, there was nothing on ground; we started from the scratch. It was a challenge. I remember, I lived in Sheraton (Hotel) for one year. I had no accommodation. I had no office. Gradually, we developed it because, it was not in the budget; what they gave us was a sort of a temporary budget.

So, even though the President invited you, there wasn’t any provision for you?
Yes, there was nothing on ground. We started from the scratch but I am happy that with the assistance of international organizations which were really committed like UNO, UNICEF, USAID; they were really contributing and we were able to succeed.

It was President Obasanjo that really took the bull by the horn; he was committed to the fight against AIDS. He set up the committee to look at the scourge called HIV. That was how we started NACA. It was a committee to begin with but it evolved, and I am happy to see that it is an agency now. I believe that it contributed to the awareness of HIV/AIDS in Nigeria.

How would you describe the health sector in Nigeria right now?
Well, unfortunately, when I first came back from Canada, things were very good. I was at the teaching hospital; it was well funded, everything was in good condition. But after a while, funding became a big problem. And, you will find that this is a big problem; funding of medi-care in Nigeria, funding of health. How many doctors do we have for our population? It is not what we should have, and because it is not well funded, a lot of things are not in place.

At this stage in our national history, we should not have such a high burden of infectious diseases any more. But, we still have infectious diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid etc. Because of changing lifestyle and environment, we still have a high rate of cancer. Non-infectious diseases are coming in and the burden is rising  hypertension, diabetics, various types of cancers are coming in. It is a big problem for the health sector because, we are joggling the two. Abroad, the level of infectious diseases has dropped because they have been able to control it in many ways. And, they’re now dealing with the non infectious diseases. But here, we have the two happening at the same time. It is a big problem and the funding that goes to health care is not enough. When you look at what we spend for health care, a country that is not healthy can never be wealthy. If you look at the population of about 140 million and a large number of people live in rural areas, and access to healthcare and the affordability of health services is still not good enough.

States offer free health care services, but how many are actually free. Level of poverty is still very high; the level of education of our people and access to health is still not good enough.

So, what you mean is that funding is key?
Yes it is key, because if you have (the right) funding and it is used properly… We have strategic plans but how well have they been implemented? And, then health is not only a federal thing; it is federal, state, and local government. The three tiers of government must participate in health care and we must have feed back from the people. We are treating people, we are giving them health care; if it is not good enough let’s have the feed back. I am very happy to see that the Minister of Health has organized something like ‘town hall fora’ for people to talk about health care. I am very happy about the initiative. We must get feed back from the people. Are we making an impact? What are the responsibilities of the government? What are the responsibilities of the individual? Because, it cannot all be done by the government.

Feedback is very important and I am happy that he introduced this concept. Look at polio. We should not have polio. Why is the polio virus still there in spite of all the money spent? We must find out why. So, I am happy that this town hall is coming and I hope we are able to manage it well so that, at least, it will help us to move forward.


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