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YOUNG, AFRICAN: Be Innovative, Be a Problem Solver in Your Community – Cassandra Akinde

Dr Cassandra Akinde is a Nigerian public health physician working in the nexus of preventive medicine and epidemiology, and an infectious disease researcher committed to strengthening health systems and improving population health outcomes, especially in children living in underserved and marginalized communities.

She has a Bachelor`s degree in Medicine and Surgery from the University of Lagos, Nigeria, and a Master’s in Tropical Medicine & International Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, United Kingdom. An emerging global health leader, Akinde, currently pursuing her MBA at Quantic School of Business and Technology, USA, spoke exclusively to Africa Interviews.

What and who inspired you to choose this path?

My childhood really played a major role in my life as I was raised as a humanitarian. My parents are the biggest inspiration behind what I do now. I remember as a child I would follow my mother to church where she was always assigned one task or another for the congregation. One event that stands fresh in my memory is the day I accompanied my mother and my brother to an orphanage for the first time as it was our turn to help in church by bringing some relief materials for the children. I met a young girl who was suffering from cerebral palsy. Part of the activities included engaging her in pottery work. We made a very beautiful clay pot that I really admired. When she saw my wistful face, she selflessly gave it to me. I was so startled, but she insisted I keep it. She was so happy giving me that pot, that till this day I remember her happy face. This was the moment I decided that giving is more fulfilling than receiving and that is how my journey in community service began. I kept coming back to play, teach and engage them in various games and artworks over the years. My dad also taught me to be selfless, innately kind, and liberal whenever the opportunity arose by donating all my unused toys, clothes and sporting equipment to charity.

What do you do presently?

I currently serve as the Executive Director of The Neo Child Initiative for Africa (TNCI), a non-profit organisation primarily driven by over 500 young vibrant volunteers and focused on improving health outcomes of children. My role involves designing public health interventions aligned to contextual factors, rigorously measuring the intervention impact, and tailoring these interventions informed by evidence-based research to provide an opportunity for children to live healthier and more productive lives. I am currently the principal investigator for assessing the impact of teacher-led school-based hygiene campaigns on handwashing practices and prevention of diarrhoea, undernutrition and pneumonia among school children in Nigeria.

I am also an infectious disease researcher and clinician assessing the epidemiological trends and seroprevalence of re-emerging infectious diseases like COVID-19, Dengue, Lassa, Ebola and most recently Monkeypox (MPX). I am currently working on a case series review of Human Mpox cases seen in Nigeria alongside leading consultant dermatologists in the country such Dr Cole Adeife and Dr Akinkugbe. My work is extremely fulfilling and relevant to my field of study. I have a dedicated interest in infectious disease epidemiology and surveillance, policy advocacy, implementation research and health system development.

How has your work made an impact on the society?

I have over six years of experience in research, stakeholder engagement and programme management across government, non-governmental and private sectors in Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa; as well as in the implementation of community-based projects and providing health policy-oriented solutions for underserved communities in Nigeria. In my position as the Executive Director of The Neo Child Initiative for Africa, I have designed and led over 10 community health programmes focused on WASH, Nutrition, Deworming, Malaria, and vaccine-preventable diseases like Pneumonia, Hepatitis, Diphtheria and Tetanus impacting over 20,000 children in Nigeria.

One of my biggest professional achievements till date is graduating from one of the best schools ranked in the world, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine with a Master’s in Tropical Medicine and International Health. Through this exposure, I was able to utilise my newfound knowledge and skills to develop more robust and sustainable child health programmes and write winning grant proposals which have won funding of over $50,000.

I conducted my first ever Impact Evaluation of a school health intervention tagged Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Education Against Diarrhoea, Undernutrition and Pneumonia (WASHED-UP) across 16 schools in Lagos, Nigeria, in collaboration with Costello Medical, UK. I co-authored the technical report that is currently being considered for a poster presentation at the Research in Progress West Africa Conference 2024 organised by The Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, United Kingdom. I have published over 10 scientific articles in international journals such as Frontiers in Public Health, Lancet and British Medical Journal and three more are in the peer-review process for publication. Thus, I am actively contributing to the body of scientific knowledge, evidence and academic development in Nigeria.

Akinde (middle) during a health intervention programme in Lagos

What is your view about the health sector in Nigeria and how can it be improved?

I would say that despite the Federal Government’s best efforts, the Nigerian health sector is still performing poorly. It is grossly underfunded; there is dilapidated infrastructure, a mass exodus of the health workforce to greener pastures, and the majority of the people are unable to access quality healthcare. As of today, Nigeria’s healthcare system is still being ranked as one of the worst in the world and the statistics paint a grim picture.

Primary health care needs to be improved. Also, there is underutilisation and bypassing of the primary health care facilities as more people prefer to use the hospitals. The gatekeeping function of the PHC is made redundant mainly due to the ineffective linkages between  health system tiers. In many cases, patients prefer to visit the secondary and tertiary health centres, but they are more expensive and this worsens health care accessibility, especially among the poor in the communities.

The government must explore innovative ways of addressing healthcare delivery and financing in a manner that focuses on partnership and collaboration among the states, the private sector, and the huge talent of Nigerian health professionals in the diaspora to rehabilitate the dying health sector.  Investing in adequate health infrastructure, upgrading primary healthcare facilities, optimising universal health insurance, welfare and remuneration packages for healthcare workers and improving conditions of service and security of health personnel is of paramount importance.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are similar obstacles, the biggest of which are a shortage of appropriately trained healthcare workers, lack of resources, poor funding and inadequate policy regulations. There is a critical need for these countries to prioritise investment in primary healthcare to develop a robust and resilient healthcare system capable of successfully combating infectious diseases.

What’s your advice to young Africans who want to pursue a career in public health?

I think the field of public health is still relatively young, but I see this as an opportunity for young Africans. Rather than solely considering profitability, our focus should revolve around problem-solving. Money holds its value, but it shouldn’t be the primary driver. It’s a fact that addressing issues often leads to wealth creation – many pioneering billionaires who tackled unprofitable problems are now reaping substantial rewards.

My advice for young Africans is to pursue their passions earnestly, especially if they’ve encountered these issues firsthand. Create your impact; discard the notion that only tech or medicine yields higher returns. If you can creatively, flexibly, and innovatively address public health issues, you will leave your mark—both in making a difference and in reaping the rewards. For instance, my Kenyan friend, Norah Majero, supplies solar-powered refrigerators for vaccines to healthcare centres, making a tangible difference while earning a living.

What is your message to African youths who feel despondent about issues in their respective countries and on the continent?

Be innovative, creative and a problem solver in their communities. No one else understands or knows the situation of your local context better than you do. You are the product of your environment. Why not invest in making the world a better place by using experience, skills and innovative mindset to solve problems? Complaining constantly, avoiding or running away from the problem won’t get us anywhere. Find positivity in everything you do and it will bring you a sense of fulfilment and peace.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by God, my family, my friends and my love for people.  My life motto is “We rise by lifting others.” I wouldn’t have been where I am today without amazing people who extended their hands to me when I was still a baby in the health sector and whom I look up to. So, I always make sure to pay the service forward by regularly engaging and mentoring students on youth opportunities and professional development.

Where do you see yourself in the next few years?

I see myself pursuing a doctorate degree, settling down with a family and setting up a consulting firm.

If you didn’t go into public health, what would have been your other career choice?

I think I would have ended up becoming an investigative journalist. I am very curious by nature and like to know things.

Describe the Africa of your dreams.

The Africa of my dreams is happy, secure, and peaceful, where its 54 countries view themselves as partners in progress and unleash economic growth through collaboration, healthy partnerships, building resilient infrastructure, and encouragement of economic diversification through inclusive and sustainable industrial development. I dream of an Africa that is an agricultural powerhouse: the world’s food basket, where through industrialization and entrepreneurship, youths and farmers are supported and gainfully employed, and no man, woman, or child will experience malnutrition. Most importantly, I want to see an African continent free of malaria, HIV/AIDs, tuberculosis, and other epidemic diseases. The Africa of my dream is where life is better, richer and fuller for everyone.

Editor’s Note: This is part of the Africa Interviews series, featuring young African changemakers making positive impact in their community, countries and globally

Author

  • Arukaino Umukoro

    Arukaino is an award-winning writer and journalist, a recipient of the CNN/MultiChoice Africa Journalist of the Year Awards (Sports reporting)

Arukaino Umukoro

Arukaino is an award-winning writer and journalist, a recipient of the CNN/MultiChoice Africa Journalist of the Year Awards (Sports reporting)

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