‘Our vaccination success is built on the hard work of community health workers,’ says leading Bangladesh scientist
Dr. Firdausi Qadri talks immunisation, the importance of exposure for women, and the need to focus in this age of excessive information
Dr. Firdausi Qadri is a scientist specializing in immunology and infectious disease research. She is the Director at Centre for Vaccine Sciences, International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease and Research in Bangladesh. In 2020, she received the L’Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Award for her outstanding work to understand and prevent infectious diseases affecting children in developing countries, and promote early diagnosis and vaccination with global health impact.
In this conversation with Anubha Bhonsle and Pallavi Prasad, Dr. Qadri talks about her love for research, the importance of vaccination for public health, and how the success of the health system is built on the hard work of community healthcare workers.
AB: How did you end up becoming a scientist? What drew you to this field?
Dr. Qadri: While growing up I knew that I wanted to do research in any field that I worked in. When I first started my career, it was in a university, it was not completely what I wanted. So I joined a job, which meant more research, and that’s how I ended up having a life in research.
Research is so exciting – there are questions that you answer, sometimes the answers are not right and that keeps your brain alive. You go back every morning trying to understand what is right.
AB: Apart from research on infectious diseases, you had been working on respiratory diseases in Bangladesh before the pandemic hit the country. How has your experience been during Covid-19?
Dr. Qadri: While a large part of my research has focused on enteric diseases, I started becoming interested in respiratory infections over the last five years, and have been working on low acute respiratory infections, pneumonia, to some extent and vaccines. The experience of the two – enteric and respiratory diseases – together prepared me for Covid-19 perfectly. My lab was ready, my researchers were ready. We just had to put on a different thinking hat.
AB: What are your hopes and vision for the next five years in the context of vaccines and public health in Bangladesh?
Dr. Qadri: Children in countries like ours suffer from concurrent infections. A child by two years of age can have 12 or 13 different infections, and they can have diseases, not just infections. This causes growth retardation in the children and hampers their development. If we can take away this burden in the young children, at least in the under-five children, we will be able to see healthier children, children living longer, but living in a fully healthy status.
Since, we introduced vaccination in Bangladesh in 1978, the number of vaccines in our national immunisation system has gone up. As a result, there are far fewer cases of disease and death caused by vaccine-preventable diseases like neonatal and maternal tetanus, measles, rubella, mumps etc. Consequently children are living longer, leading to parents having fewer children. Bangladesh has had a record decline in the number of children per couple, and immunisation has played an important role in that.
In my calculation, we have three vaccines for the enterics – cholera, rotavirus, typhoid – and with these we will be able to tackle a major share of morbidity in this country. That is something that I look forward to in the next few years. Covid-19 has detracted our path a little but once it is available, I would also like the Covid-19 vaccine being used. I would like all four vaccines to be taken up and additionally, vaccines that are needed by special groups of people, like the HPV vaccine that protects young girls from cervical cancer, to be incorporated in a system.
AB: In your experience how important have you found the role of Community Health Workers – most of them are women – on the ground?
Dr. Qadri: Our vaccine success is not simply because of external support – it is also the setup we have in Bangladesh. We have hundreds of healthcare workers all over the country. They are on the frontline, distributing the vaccines, bringing children and parents and mothers to the vaccination centres or going to homes to vaccinate.
They toil from morning till night and sometimes the women may walk for 10 to 20 kilometres a day to deliver vaccines and health interventions. Our success is built on the hard work of our healthcare workers.
AB: What would more women scientists and researchers in the top echelons of the public health sector mean in a true sense? And what would it take to bring them here?
Dr. Qadri: Firstly, we have to ensure women are educated, because education strengthens the whole system. Increasingly, more women are learning and educating… as a result, I think the country is becoming stronger. I would like to see more women everywhere in the workforce. Women are needed everywhere – be it STEM, public health.
I think women will need to be braver and more energetic. Men are so confident, they have a halo around them, their families support them, they walk freely everywhere. That’s not the case for women. We’ll also need institutional support for women to ensure safety and security.
And of course, access to good quality education and exposure is important for women to be independent. Exposure not just in your own country, but also outside is important. For a woman to be stronger, she should see what is happening and how other women tackle themselves. I try to send the people I work with to other countries for a few months – not so much for the academics, but for the exposure.
AB: As a leading scientist in public health, what is the advice you’d give to young women and men?
Dr. Qadri: I would say we live in an age of social media. While social media can educate us a lot, it can also take away things from you – you may stop thinking on your own, and get drifted with what others are saying. We should stop every now and then, and think and contemplate independently.
Second, read a lot, develop the ability to focus and concentrate. These days we are constantly distracted – there is so much information one can get lost.
And lastly, failures are good for you because you can learn a lot from them. Success is very good, but successes are a glow and you forget how you came to it. But failures are important too.
Note: This interview has been edited for brevity.