When will we stop kidding ourselves?


Nothing can be more painful than when the credibility, integrity, resourcefulness and intelligence of an entire people is brought into disrepute by the few that have access to pages of newspapers. The only thing worse is the editor that allows stories that can have such a profound effect on people be published. Especially in our country where the newspapers are considered at the same level of The Lancet. Its a sad state of affairs in our country; Nigeria proud in the knowledge of all the experts it has produced in all areas of human endeavour. Yet our patriotism will stop most of us from asking the hard questions once there is a story of success out of Nigeria. This is the reason the Dr Abalaka phenomenom could blossom among others…

Today we woke up to a headline in THISDAY. One of Nigeria’s most respected dailies…

History, As Nigerian Finds Cure for Diabetes

It stated boldly….“It’s official – a Nigerian scientist, Dr. Louis Obyo Obyo Nelson, has finally found a cure for the dreaded diabetes disease which afflicts over 123 million sufferers all over the world”

No less than the Minister of State for Health
Dr Aliyu Idi Hong is quoted as describing this asepoch (sic) and historical”

The paper reports further that:

  • “THISDAY had exclusively reported on May 23, 2003 that Nelson had been granted a United States patent entitled “Medicament for the Treatment of Diabetes”
  • The drug, which was said to have been administered on many diabetic victims, has been found to be very safe and highly effective.
  • Nelson recorded a breakthrough in his research for a drug that could cure diabetes when the US government issued him with a patent (No. 6,531,461) for his medication, which can effectively treat Type I and Type II diabetes.
  • Unlike insulin which has been used for many decades to manage diabetes, Nelson’s “wonder” drug can be administered orally, making it possible for patients to administer it as capsule, tablet or syrup. Insulin can only be injected into the body.
  • At the first clinical trial, the initial extract derived from Vernonia amygdalina was orally administered to 26 patients all of whom had been previously diagnosed as suffering from insulin deficiency. For control, a group of five were used, who maintained diet discipline throughout the trial.

When this story first appeared in Thisday in 2003, I wrote a rejoinder on Nigerianworld that is still on the site. If only the reporter googled the name…he would have at least found reason to ask a few more questions. …2003!!!

TRUEDr. Louis Obyo Obyo Nelson has a patent

But what is a patent… I went to the website of the USA’s Patent office and found their definition as “A U.S. patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor(s), issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The right conferred by the patent grant is, in the language of the statute and of the grant itself, “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing” the invention into the United States.” Then I looked for the criteria for which a patent can be issued on the sam
e site and came up with “Patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or compositions of matters, or any new useful improvement thereof

Nowhere does it say that the invention (which may be a product, a method of production, or indeed a plant classification) has gone through any scrutiny apart from that of the inventor neither himself…nor any peer review.

In effect anybody can apply for a patent based on the above criteria!

The substance Dr. Louis Obyo Obyo (he describes himself on his website as a PhD in Chemistry) d
escribes as a cure may well turn out to be one…but there is a long way to go…. and until that point is reached can we celebrate. The Newspaper will do well to live up to its motto of “The Pursuit of Truth and Reason and seek this truth even if it takes verification of the authenticity of such articles prior to publication by any of the abundant learned scientists scattered around Nigerian institutions of learning.

The study on which he based his conclusions was made on a “grand total” of 31 people (26 patients and 5 controls!). Results as quoted by the newspaper…It was revealed that the 26 patients receiving the initial extract no longer required maintaining diet discipline after the first month and examination showed remission of the disease after three months.

  • This is exactly the same statement mande in 2003, probably referring to the same “study”
  • No reference is made to a source of the publication in any peer review journals as is the standard in any health research.

This is what Thisday refers to as Nelson’s “wonder” drug

Dr Nelson will do well to seek counsel on the necessary scrutiny any invention (especially medical) needs to go through before it is released unto human “guinea pigs” as has often been done by various claimants that pop up in Nigeria from time to time.

The assumption that most of us NIGERIANS are unintelligent and stupid and consequently vulnerable to believing as the truth whatever is written by some of our newspapers must be put to rest. We in the scientific community have a responsibility to respond. Those of us that have taken the Hippocratic oath, as doctors must remember the words “I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.” It is the lives of people that we are dealing with…and even if it seems so cheap in Nigeria today, we must not forget.

Most importantly our Minister of State has a responsibility when he speaks. He must take this extremely seriously. His prescence must have given THISDAY the impetus to start with the audacious statement….”ITS OFFICIAL…”

I am sure that I will be barraged by accusations of not being patriotic but fortunately (or unfortunately for others) good science knows no boundaries….



Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead

Chikwe Ihekweazu is an epidemiologist and consultant public health physician. He is the Editor of Nigeria Health Watch, and the Managing Partner of EpiAfric (www.epiafric.com), which provides expertise in public health research and advisory services, health communication and professional development. He previously held leadership roles at the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the UK's Health Protection Agency. Chikwe has undertaken several short term consultancies for the World Health Organisation, mainly in response to major outbreaks. He is a TED Fellow and co-curator of TEDxEuston.

Discussion5 Comments

  1. I read the article yesterday and thought “oh dear, not another chalatant masqurading as a scientist”.
    If Mr or Dr. Nelson is a true scientist he will know that the best way to publish his research is in a journal or forum where his peers (who are knowledgeble about these things) can critic his work.
    A better account of Mr. Nelson’s press conference was written in yesterday’s Guardian and titled “Nigerian herb shows promise in diabetes management”.
    Also, Thisday of 05/02/2009 carried a story that the PSN is skeptical about Mr. Nelson’s claim. He would probably go the same way as Abalaka but probably after several lives are have been lost.

  2. Thank you soooooooooooo much for this post. I am medical student at Pennsylvania State College of Medicine, USA. I was appalled by the This Day article. To make matters worse, Somalia Press copied the same article-word for word, and also published it. Such foolishness!!!!
    Your blog is definately going to be my homepage!

  3. The President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria equally debunked the Diabetes cure claim and raised a “caveat emptor”! I dare say journalism in Nigeria now can better be described as mass dissemination of ignorance by people who can neither string together a decent sentence in English nor can be relied upon for logical statements never mind factual statements.
    My saddest media moment in recent times was an interview with IBB on the much acclaimed “Moments with Mo” fashioned after Oprah. I have never been a fan of Mo as a talkshow host; as an entrepreneur she’s done well but her facial expression characterised by an abnormally wide grin (possibly from years of fake smiles and excess “pancake”) is simply not suited for TV. This lady had IBB on the spot and was totally unable to grill him instead she was asking questions analogous to: “when u carried out the autopsy, was the corpse available?”.
    Perhaps she was in awe of the opulence of IBB’s palace as exemplied by the “golden” chairs she & IBB sat on.


    That was the sensational headlines in some of our top newspapers, and the national network news of the NTA, hailing the breakthrough news of the discovery of a cure for diabetes mellitus by a Nigerian. There was emphasis on the word cure, to distinguish the great advance over the mere management of the condition, so far achieved by the world of medical orthodoxy. Two days afterwards there was a discussion over the NTA that seem to regret the relegation of traditional and herbal medicine being suppressed by orthodox medical practitioners, thus preventing similar solutions to conditions presently beyond the scope of orthodoxy, such as cancer. Nigerians were likely to be pleasantly astounded because

    1. The discovery of the cure for diabetes was made by a Nigerian in Nigeria!

    2. The story had the air of genuine scientific authenticity, with all the requirement of the scientific law having been satisfied.

    3. It granting of a patent “by the USA,” and signing of an agreement with a company “from the USA” appeared to give the final proof that the discovery was beyond doubt, except by those imprisoned by colonial mentality and Nigeria-phobia, who do not accept that anything good can come out of Nigeria. The Nigerian public was not told that granting a patent of a process or drug is no proof of the effectiveness of what it seeks to protect as intellectual property. In addition, presentation of the story might have misled many into thinking that the discovery already had the approval of the US government or any of its agencies.

    This intimidating publicity however, could not clear doubt from all of us because there were certain pieces out of place in the apparent solution of this jigsaw puzzle called diabetes mellitus. Diabetes mellitus is not really a disease, but symptom of underlying diseases of different aetiologies, rather like jaundice. Those who wish to appreciate this more deeply should read the dissertation on “Glucose Intolerance” by two Nigerian academics in the USA, Dr. Samuel T Olatunbosun, MD, and Professor Samuel Dagogo-Jack, MD, MBBS, MSc, FRCP. To say one has found “a cure for diabetes” or for “jaundice” immediately suggests to the medically well-informed that the claimant has either been misquoted or does not know what he is talking about. The article by these experts gives diverse causes of the condition:

    1. Genetic defects of beta-cell function, such as Chromosomal or mitochondrial DNA mutations,

    2. Defects in insulin action, Insulin receptor disorders or resistance, lipo-atrophy

    3. Diseases of the exocrine pancreas –

    4. Endocrine diseases associated with excess production of insulin antagonists

    5. Drugs or chemical agents with adverse effects

    6. Infections associated with beta-cell destruction

    7. Immune-mediated causes

    8. Genetic syndromes

    9. Pregnancy factors

    10. Obesity

    11. Other causes of glucose intolerance, such as Liver disease or renal failure

    All these causal factors have been scientifically investigated in detail and are not matters of speculation. It is obvious that no solution to a single one would be efficacious for all the others. For example, even the successful transplantation of the beta cells of the Islets of Langerhans of the pancreas would cure only some of the causes of diabetes mellitus, not all. Therefore, we of the unrepentant scientific medical approach would insist on the publication of the details of the double blind clinical trials before we join the bandwagon of celebration. Indeed, we would expect publication of the results of such or convincing trials in the professional journals long before publication in the mass media. The apparent absence of references to such literature is unfortunate. Meanwhile, many of us are waiting for the peer review before toasting the people involved.

    Professor Shima K Gyoh

    College of Health Sciences

    Benue state University

  5. Reading the article filled me with different kinds of emotions but outrage and suspiscion was not on the list.
    My reasons stem from the fact that we Nigerians are the biggest critics of our own developments and we specialize in placing hurdles in the way of development. We have seen so much disappointment that we are not optimistic again.

    While Dr Nelson’s claims of a cure are suspect, what gave me a lot of reason to hope it is possible is the claim to conducting a small clinical trial. Which in Clinical trial parlance is a Phase 1 trial.
    Which makes it entirely different from the Abalaka Saga. His willingness to partner organizations for drug development and production is a step in the right direction and not shrouding everything in secrecy.
    His recent interview in the dailies have further put to rest some question I had and puts in perspective the way things stand.

    The sensationalism of the press should not remove the fact that A Nigerian Scientist is doing something that might change the management of Diabetes worldwide.
    When the Asians used artemisisn extracts in the early 20th century for treatment of malaria, nobody paid attention but right now we have gone full circle and Artemisinins are the mainstay of Malaria treatment.

    We are calling for double blinded clinical trials but who funds that in Nigeria, do we have the personnel to conduct such, can we monitor results the process and intermediate outcomes we obtain and finally does our system even promote research and innovation? Untold discoveries and scientific developments have died on the benches and filing cabinets of our research institutions and universities. And we have a fully developed system to kill ideas and hopes.
    What makes a nation great is its ability and willingness to invest in innovations and developments.
    Day in day out, scientific innovations fail and do not live up to their initial expectations but that has not stopped researchers from trying and companies investing.

    We might actually hold the ace to turning around diabetes management and may we not throw away the opportunity.
    What Dr Nelson needs now is support and if he fails we know someone tried at least to do something despite all odds.

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