• Wednesday, Nov 25, 2020
  • Last Update : 02:05 am

The father, the daughter, and the viral diseases

  • Published at 10:35 pm January 22nd, 2020

When Dr Samir joined the Bangladesh Shishu Hospital, he established the Department of Microbiology in 1983, in a room measuring some 6 feet by 12 feet, adjacent to the main hospital building

There are many reasons why Dr Samir Kumar Saha’s should be a recognised name among the general population. His tremendous strides in developing vaccines for paediatric diseases are just the cherry on top. He helped turn a lab from a tiny room to a state-of-the-art lab that has been credited with saving hundreds of thousands of lives. His achievements have been acknowledged by Unesco, the American Society for Microbiology, and a number of similar bodies.

But he has only recently become a household name, after billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates announced that Dr Samir Kumar Saha and his daughter Dr Senjuti Saha were a dynamic duo battling global health inequality. A shout-out from one of the richest and most giving people on the planet rapidly forced Bangladeshis into recognizing who they were and what they did.

Decades ago, when Dr Samir joined the Bangladesh Shishu Hospital, he established the Department of Microbiology in 1983, in a room measuring some 6 feet by 12 feet, adjacent to the main hospital building. He had just completed his MSc from Dhaka University and was eager to make a difference. After a few years he embarked on a PhD programme from the Institute of Medical Sciences at Banaras Hindu University in India. Upon returning home in 1989, Dr Samir had a clear idea of what needed to be done in order to turn the department around.

It took a whole decade for the lab to be made fully functional, and today it is one of the most advanced laboratories in the country. The relentless efforts made by Dr Samir helped lead the fight against pneumococcal diseases through a use of vaccines and surveillance networks at hospitals nationwide.

Today, Samir Saha leads the Child Health Research Foundation (CHRF)– which he established in 2007 - to help diagnose diseases in children. Inspired by a family of microbiologists, Dr Senjuti Saha joined the team after completing her PhD from Canada and gave a strong momentum in it. 

This gave the team added strength as Dr Senjuti has had 12 long years of working experience abroad through acquiring knowledge about new technologies. She was thus eminently qualified  to supervise and teach the staff of the laboratories into becoming increasingly more efficient.  

What markedly distinguishes the CHRF from many other research bodies is that it immediately apprises hospitals with its reports once the research is complete. The CHRF is a network and includes several other paediatricians and epidemiologists, and works with the Child Health Foundation Hospital at Mirpur, Mirzapur Kumudini Hospital in Tangail, Maa o Shishu Hospital in Chittagong in studying and combating respiratory viruses among children.

With about 200 staff, the CHRF’s data-driven approach aims to identify emerging viruses, stronger strains of viruses, design vaccines, and how the said viruses respond to vaccines. Pneumonia and meningitis remain its centre of research and currently the organisation is doing research on estimating the burden of RSV infection and pneumonia among hospitalized children less than 5 years old in Bangladesh.

In 2017, Dr Samir was awarded the Unesco Carlos J Finlay Prize in Microbiology as the first Bangladeshi and was honoured by the American Society of Microbiology as the first non-American for his outstanding research in clinical microbiology.

The same year, Dr Senjuti cut her teeth by getting to the bottom of a surge in meningitis cases. She had samples of the genetic material of infected children flown to the US for analysis. She learned that the meningitis outbreak was directly tied to the mosquito-borne Chikungunya outbreak.

In 2019, Dr Senjuti was a speaker at the Third Annual Gates Goalkeepers, raising the topic of inequality in access to healthcare. She talked about the importance of sharing technology among countries to better treat and cure diseases, noting the great disparity among countries with the best paediatric healthcare and countries with the highest infant mortality rates.

In her speech she said: “At Dhaka Shishu Hospital, Bangladesh’s largest paediatric facility, more than 6,000 children are refused admission every year because its 665 beds are always full, and many of the beds are occupied by people suffering from preventable diseases.”

Her father echoed similar concerns: “If a child was vaccinated, they would not only not be required to be hospitalized, it would also leave the bed open for another patient, thereby significantly increasing efficiency.”

“We are studying the impact of pneumococcus and how it is causing more illnesses,” Dr Samir said, indicating the high number of infant patients at the Shishu Hospital.  

When asked why the infant mortality rate was not declining, he suggested it might be tied to the nature of treatment. 

“Perhaps doctors are more focused on the nature of infections as many symptoms resemble infectious diseases. Unfortunately, we may be assuming that almost every child is born with infectious diseases.”

In spite of the numerous accolades and the sudden surge in fame, Dr Samir Saha remains grounded and humble, stressing that only the knowledge that a Bangladeshi has been honoured makes him proud.

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