Ihekweazu

Adebayo Obajemu 

In his autobiography, Robert Oppenheimer,  father of the atomic bomb said there always comes a time when a man must stake all for higher principle.  The brilliant physicist who led the Los Alamos team of leading scientists, including Dr. Albert Einstein, to build the atomic bomb that put a lie to Hitler’s imperial ambition and ended the Second World War, said saving lives were more important to him than any other ideal.
More than 70 years after, another star arose in a different firmament whose ambition is to protect his people from the ravages of a deadly virus named Coronavirus in person of Dr. Chikwe Iheakweazu, Director General National Centre for Diseases Control, the national agency saddled with the responsibility of managing diseases in the country.
He was little known before the outbreak of the Covid 19, but his invitation by he World Health Organisation, WHO, as part of a team of global experts to visit China in the heat of the battle, on fact finding, aroused some interest. But he came to lime light he went into self isolation on his return, insisting it was his responsibility to do to protect other Nigeria. Since then he has become more and more the most important person in the country under this circumstances.
He is the burden bearer of the nation now as he leads a group of medical experts and workers to save the nation from a pandemic that is already ravaging most of the world.

As he works round the clock to battle the current virus, this epidemiologist might just prevent the next deadly pandemic any time it arises going by his energy and dedication. In fact it is generally agreed that the nation’s saving grace was the Ebola epidemic hat threatened Nigeria and Africa in 2014, which led to the provision of the current structures at the NCDC.
Ihekweazu’s aim is to build a public-health agency that will stand the test of time and a memorial to standard and best practices. This workaholic doctor was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari to head the agency in 2016. Yet just four years after his appointment, he has more than doubled the size of the NCDC staff, set up a network of molecular-biology labs across the country and become the steward of multimillion-dollar grants intended to diffuse the threat of an epidemic in Nigeria and for the rest of the world.
All this is a testament to his administrative skills, his expertise and connection. Through his brilliant leadership that nascent agency has battled about a dozen outbreaks, which have infected more than 70,000 people.
“We are building the ship while we are sailing,” Ihekweazu says. Now he has another two years to transform the NCDC into an organization that will operate successfully long after he’s gone.

Many have faith that he can do so, given his current handling of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic where he has displayed uncommon leadership and courage. He has been able to connect successfully with all stakeholders while being frank and down- to- earth in his advisory to government and the people on how to avoid further infections and curtail the spread of the virus.

It is a common saying in beer halls that Chikwe has been this successful because of his background, which has German and Nigerian roots. Many hope that he will be noticed by health authorities across Africa as a model who can make a difference.

“Chikwe is showing that Africa can do what is needed, when it’s needed,” says David Heymann, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “He is leading the way on how things can be done.”
Chikwe has had an exciting career. After his medical school at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, he moved to Germany, where he received a master’s degree in public health and then worked in the national health system. In 2002, he became an epidemiologist at what is now Public Health England in Bristol, UK.
One of his mentors, James Stuart, a Bristol-based consultant for the World Health Organization (WHO), remembers Ihekweazu as highly skilled but utterly unassuming. When Ihekweazu was assigned to investigate an outbreak of Escherichia coli in Cornwall, UK, for example, the local authorities resisted handing over the case.
“Chikwe managed to listen to everyone, respected their contributions and made them feel as if they were leading it,” Stuart recalls.
Together, the team found that cattle faeces had contaminated a stream, and that children playing near the water were getting infected.
Others have noticed his penchant for gliding between cultures and pushing people to cooperate for the common good. Ihekweazu attributes what he has done in the case of the current pandemic to prepared and team work.
Chikwe was born to a Nigerian-German parents. His father is a Nigerian doctor and the mother, a German professor. Chikwe holds an MBBS from the University of Nigeria and a Masters in Public Health from Heinrich-Heine University, Germany.
He co-founded EpiAFRIC and Nigeria Health Watch as managing partner and editor respectively. In 2011, he moved to Johannesburg, South Africa with his family to become the co-director of the Centre for Tuberculosis at the South Africa National Institute for Communicable Diseases, Johannesburg, South Africa and later as a medical epidemiologist consultant at United Kingdom’s Health Protection Agency.
He is currently the Chief Executive Officer, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), He was the acting director of the Regional Centre for Disease Control for West Africa.
Following Nigeria’s National Assembly bill and act, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) became an independent agency on 13 November 2018 and Chikwe emerged the first Director General of the agency.
During the 2019-2020 COVID 19 Pandemic, he was part of a team of experts of the World Health Organisation on a joint mission to study the epidemic in China.
In 2007, Chikwe attended his first TED conference in Tanzania. It was widely reported by the media that Chikwe criticized Nigeria for being unprepared for epidemics in his blog- 2009–10 H1N1 influenza pandemic, “Nigeria needs a central, well-resourced centre for infectious disease prevention and control, or one day we will pay the price the hard way”.
He has proved to be not only a patriot but a committed physician who works for the common good.

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