College of
Human
Medicine

Dr. Stephen Obaro receives $5.8 million Gates grant to study child-killing bacterial diseases in Africa

By Jason Cody

January 24, 2012

Bacteria infections - most of which are preventable via vaccines readily available in the developed world - and not malaria are the leading cause of death for children in sub-Saharan Africa.

A new Michigan State University project based in Nigeria and funded by a $5.8 million grant aims to help prevent these diseases by collecting local data on the ailments, spurring vaccine use and development. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the research led by Stephen Obaro focuses on diseases such as pneumonia, sepsis and meningitis.

"Nigeria, and many of its neighbors, continues to trail behind the developed world with high infant mortality rates and poor immunization coverage when it comes to these diseases," said Obaro, a professor in MSU's Department of Pediatrics and Human Development, part of the College of Human Medicine.

"The main reason is that the clinical importance of bacterial infections is poorly recognized, with most illnesses causing a fever being attributed to malaria or treated with antibiotics before a firm diagnosis can be made."

Obaro and his team believe generating local data on the biological agents causing the bacteria diseases in children will reduce complacency toward immunization and strengthen advocacy for the introduction of relevant vaccines.

"Our goal is to increase the use of currently available but poorly utilized vaccines, stimulate development of new vaccines and monitor the impact of these vaccines or other appropriate preventive strategies," he said.

Working with University College Hospital in Ibadan, Nigeria, the team will establish a population-based surveillance program of 150,000-200,000 people in the southwest region of the nation. Additionally, a hospital-based surveillance program will be established in Kano in the northcentral region of the country in collaboration with Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital. These strategic sites will provide representative epidemiologic data for the country and will allow the researchers to target four objectives:

  • Establish two field and laboratory sites to determine which specific pathogens are causing diseases in children up to 5 years old;
  • Determine incidence rates of childhood bacteria diseases;
  • Determine the role of respiratory viruses in severe childhood pneumonia;
  • Determine the role of co-morbid conditions such as HIV and malaria in bacteria disease.

The project is developed in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Nigerian National Primary Health Care Development Agency. MSU is well positioned for such an initiative because of investigators' expertise in pediatric infectious disease in Africa and ongoing research on improving communication strategies for the eradication of polio in northern Nigeria, said Dele Davies, chairperson of the Department of Pediatrics and Human Development.

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Researcher Dr. Stephen Obaro
Researcher Dr. Stephen Obaro,
Professor in the Department of
Pediatrics and Human Development
  at MSU College of Human Medicine