Behind every discovery of new medical treatment is research. In fact, experts insist that advances in medical care and public health allow us to live longer.
The Chronic Disease Research Centre, set up more than two decades ago by the School of Clinical Medicine and Research, at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, ensures that Barbados and its Caribbean neighbours are at the forefront
of medical knowledge.
Over the last two decades, scientists at the Jemmott’s Lane-based centre have been seeking to fulfil their stated mission to develop a world-class research centre, providing data to lessen the impact of today’s greatest health problems, including diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Professor Clive Landis, the man in charge, underscores the importance of investigating the disease. He says research is really the starting point.
“If you don’t do this research and you don’t actually collect data –– for example, there are countries in the region that do not collect case-specific mortality –– you won’t know what people are dying from of course. We all die from something.
The question is when do we and from what and is it preventable? So if you don’t undertake that research, you can’t even begin to try to implement interventions to help extend the quality of life of the population.”
Landis’ strong views on the need for research is evident in the centre’s landmark studies, which have attracted global attention. Just last year, local researchers reported they had uncovered what he calls “a best practice “ in the fight against HIVAIDS, in a study entitled Ten Year Trends –– In Community HIV Viral Load In Barbados: Implications For Treatment As Prevention.
It revealed that people infected with HIV, who go on antiretroviral therapy are virtually non-infectious.
“What we discovered was fairly extraordinary. The ability to suppress the virus in clients who are attending the centre is as good as in the United States . . . . We were actually only the second country in the world behind the US.
“That’s good news from the point of the patients. There is no more death sentence; but what is even better news . . . is that there is actually a public health benefit of people being on treatment, because if you are on treatment and you achieve what we call viral suppression, the virus is so low in your body you become almost non-infectious, it will actually decrease sexual transmission across the whole population.”
He’s hoping that discoveries like this will persuade infected people to overcome the challenge of stigma and discrimination to seek treatment to maintain a quality life.
“After a person is diagnosed with HIV, we have a tendency to lose the person until they come and present very late in their illness, maybe with full-blown AIDS in the hospital close to death’s door. Now that is very unnecessary in today’s age because HIV is very treatable and I make no exaggeration. It is as treatable as diabetes.”
Apart from HIV/AIDS, the CRDC has also conducted other notable research – including the Barbados Eye Study with the National Health Institute in the United States.
That also proved significant. In fact, the research is now guiding eye care for African Americans.
“One of the big findings is that glaucoma is actually much more highly prevalent in ethnic black populations . . . and what was interesting, when the known glaucoma genes were actually investigated in the Barbados population, we didn’t have any of them and so the eye study actually culminated in a very major finding which says there’s a new glaucoma gene discovered in our population which is present in persons of West Africa origin.”
The CRDC has also probed the levels of cancer in the Barbados Cancer Study, which focused on prostate and breast cancer in the population.
“A finding which sort of repeats itself over and over is that our black population, relatively speaking, has a low incidence of cancer than the comparable population in the US, but our outcomes after cancer is detected are worse,” he pointed out.
In the weeks ahead, the CRDC is hoping to roll out the findings of a study called the Health Of The Nation, which took a random sample of the healthy population in Barbados.
“That is going to establish for the first time what is the prevalence of diabetes, both known and unknown, and you know that is the starting point from which we can then proceed and say, well this is a problem or maybe it isn’t a problem. Until you actually measure these things it’s really just speculation,” Landis contends.