Nigerian – American Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu is my African of the week.
The COVID-19 HUNTER
An epidemic appeared in 1721 in the United States and swept through cities killing hundreds. There was no medical treatment, and no one understood the disease. Most documents will recount how a certain Edward Jenner in 1796, developed and effective vaccine which evolved from the injection of the disease into cows to provoke immunity against smallpox. So, the world knows that Jenner by doing what he did, set the stage for the development of the vaccine which eventually became mandatory in Massachusetts.
There is however a back story to this. In 1706, an African slave was bought by a certain Mather who named him “Onesimus” after a Biblical slave and the name meant “useful”. When the epidemic appeared, Onesimus told his master that he could prevent and cure smallpox. He claimed that back in Africa he had undergone a procedure that prevented him from having the disease. This aroused the curiosity of Mather. Onesimus explained a procedure that consisted of rubbing the liquid substance from an infected person into an open wound on the arm. Once the infected was introduced into the body, the person who underwent the procedure was inoculated against smallpox. This inoculation did activate the persons immunity against the disease. Mather’s advocacy of the idea from Onesimus, met resistance from those suspicious of African medicine. Doctors, ministers, laymen, and Boston city officials argued that the practice of inoculating healthy individuals would spread the disease and that it was immoral to interfere with the working of divine providence. Mather was also publicly ridiculed for relying on the testimony of a slave. It was commonly anticipated that enslaved Africans would attempt an overthrow of white society; therefore Onesimus’ medicinal wisdom was met with severe mistrust and assumed to be a ploy to poison white citizens. Nonetheless, a physician, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, got very interested and carried out the method Onesimus had described. This involved sticking a needle into a pustule from an infected person’s body and scraping the infected needle across a healthy person’s skin. Dr. Boylston first inoculated his 6-year-old son and two of his slaves. A total of 280 individuals were inoculated during the 1721-22 Boston smallpox epidemic. The population of 280 inoculated patients experienced only 6 deaths (approx. 2.2 percent), compared to 844 deaths among the 5,889 non-inoculated smallpox patients (approx. 14.3 percent). In 1971, the world was said to be smallpox free. Yet no one talks about Onesimus. So, it is with the many other stories of the inventive genius of African people the world over.
The fate of Onesimus will certainly not be that of Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu. He is my pick of the week. He is the Yale principal investigator on multiple investigational therapeutic and preventative clinical trials for COVID-19, including remdesivir. Health experts and professional bodies from all over especially from Africa celebrated the achievement of the Nigerian-born medical doctor leading the Pfizer trial for the coronavirus vaccine in the United States.