Professor Muki Shey hopes to give back through developing TB vaccine

'I work every day. I try to work as hard as I can to really achieve that because some time – maybe in the next 10 years, 15 years, 20 years – it will happen.'

It was his own background, including childhood sickness, which inflamed Professor Muki Shey’s passion for finding health solutions in resource-constrained settings.

“Because of where I come from, helping people with limited resources has always interested me,” he says.

“I mean, in Cameroon, it is payment before service. So even if people succeed in getting to health centres they often don’t have the money to pay for medical help. So it piqued my interest from early on to see how can we make this better – how do we improve health, especially in such remote areas?”

Fast forward to 9 March this year, the South African Medical Research Council conveyed on Shey a silver award for his “outstanding contribution to health research”.

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At the awards ceremony, Shey was joined by his wife Eunice, also from Cameroon, who is studying toward a master’s in education and psychology at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The couple have three children and live in Goodwood.

At UCT, Shey’s great ambition is to help create a vaccine which reliably prevents tuberculosis (TB) in adults.

BCG vaccine for TB

Presently, only the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine is available for TB and while it prevents severe TB in children, there is little evidence that it works in adults.

The World Health Organisation estimates that TB led to an estimated 1.6 million deaths in 2021, with 98% of cases occurring in low- and middle-income countries where resources are often limited.

Since 2018, Shey has spearheaded research into TB in healthcare workers from around Cape Town, scanning for those who over at least five years of high exposure to the disease at hospitals or clinics have never been infected.

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“So we want to take a step back and look into these individuals with natural resistance, to see how they naturally work to protect themselves. And then how we can use that information to make a better vaccine,” says the 43-year-old scholar from Nkumkov-Nseh in North West Cameroon.

Inside Shey’s office, where on a cloudless day one can look over Table Mountain, a large placard bears testimony to the study. It is titled: Mycobacteria-specific cytokine and antibody responses in healthcare workers with resistance to Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection.

In Shey’s study, they assessed over 850 healthcare workers. Of these, 132 have no evidence of infection with TB.

The healthcare workers were from Brooklyn Chest Hospital in Milnerton, Khayelitsha District Hospital, Mitchells Plain Hospital, the DP Marais Hospital in Retreat, some community clinics and medical wards at academic hospitals Groote Schuur and Tygerberg.

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Similar research studies are ongoing at the Aurum Institute in Johannesburg and in Kampala, Uganda.

“In Uganda, they’re looking at household contacts of TB patients who don’t get infected in families where there is high exposure of TB. In Johannesburg, they’re looking at gold mines – at mineworkers who have been exposed for a long time and who also have not been infected in that time,” he says.

Giving back

Shey describes his own journey from Nkumkov to Cape Town as a miracle – and now he wants to give back.

He is also a member of another charitable organisation, Bui Family Union South Africa, which runs projects to help the children of refugees and orphans in Cape Town while assisting in bringing medical care to the region of his birth in Cameroon.

Among other things, he says they assisted a medical facility built in Nkumkov in 2016 to buy six medical beds and medicinal basics like paracetamol.

Political unrest interrupted construction but the centre was recently completed. Today, Shey is an infectious disease immunologist and an associate professor serving as a chief research officer at UCT’s department of medicine at the faculty of health sciences adjacent to Groote Schuur.

“My goal is to contribute to developing a vaccine that will be widely available worldwide, saving the lives of people,” he says.

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“So I work every day. I try to work as hard as I can to really achieve that because some time – maybe in the next 10 years, 15 years, 20 years – it will happen.”

Meanwhile, his older brother Charles Wiysonge is a professor affiliated to both Stellenbosch University and UCT. He is also the senior director of Cochrane South Africa at the South African Medical Research Council.

The two brothers are paying to put the eight children of their two sisters through school back in Cameroon.

“What is R1 000 in my bank account when I can put a smile on a child’s face?” says Shey.

This article originally appeared on Spotlight and was republished with permission. Read the original article here

Spotlight is the primarily online publication monitoring SA’s response to TB and HIV and the state of SA’s health systems.

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