A career dedicated to helping women fight malaria
Dr Rose Leke
Emeritus Professor of Immunology and Parasitology, Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, University of Yaounde, Cameroon
Can you talk a little bit about your research on malaria in pregnant women?
I’ve focused on researching how malaria affects pregnant women for much of my career. Pregnant women are disproportionately affected by the disease, and over the years we have helped uncover some of the science behind why that happens and what we can do about it.
During the last ten years, we’ve followed the same group of mothers to learn how malaria progresses over time and how strategies to prevent malaria during pregnancy can affect the development of immunity to the disease in both the mother and her baby. Mothers rarely pass malaria on to their babies in utero, but they can pass on protective antibodies and antigens that trigger an immune response in the fetus. These findings are opening up a whole new area of neonatal immunology.
Did you experience malaria as a child growing up in Cameroon?
I grew up having malaria all the time, sometimes two or three times a year. We were given weekly prophylaxis as instructed by our local health clinic, but we’d still get malaria. To help us recover, my mother would put leaves, lemon grass, and other herbs in a big, boiling pot of water and then put a blanket over me and the hot pot, so that the steam from the pot would be on me. It would help you sweat out the fever and make you feel better.
In 2011, you were one of six people to be given the Kwame Nkrumah Scientific Award for Women. Do you have any advice for aspiring women scientists?
Science is still a challenging field for women to enter, and even more so in which to progress. At the university, I have seen many promising young women finish their studies and start jobs as assistants only to either get stuck in that position indefinitely or eventually leave to take care of their families. There just wasn’t the mentorship or financial support for research needed for them to be able to progress. It was an issue I really took to heart.
Universal coverage with our best tools and improved vector control is very important.
Dr Rose Leke
Last year, with funding from WHO’s Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) and the Canadian IDRC (where I received my PhD training) a group of colleagues and I started the HIGHER Women Consortium in Cameroon. We provided training and mentorship to young women researchers – writing competitive grants, leadership skills, time management – and we also just spent time with them, sitting around the fire, roasting corn, telling our stories. We really developed a relationship with them. We now have a mentor-protégée program that is functioning better than we originally thought it would. Some of these women have already gone on to be awarded prestigious grants, and the consortium is looking into expanding across central Africa.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the malaria fight?
I am always concerned about the countries where there is still a very high burden of malaria, and Cameroon is one of them. Yes, there are countries that are eliminating. Yes, there is very good progress in the world. National malaria control programs have really been strengthened, prevalence of the disease is steadily decreasing, countries like Senegal, Rwanda, and others are announcing good progress. But there is still much work to be done.
I would like to see better support for countries to improve data quality, as well as more malaria endemic countries putting aside national funds to support the guidance outlined in the Global Technical Strategy for Malaria, which is really one of the greatest achievements of the WHO MPAC.
Dr Rose Leke
I recently visited a village outside Yaoundé, Cameroon where I’ve worked for the last 20 years. And a local man came up to me and said, “I’ve been seeing you come here for years, you say you are working so we have less malaria, and we still have malaria. Where is the progress?” We need to maintain a high level of focus on these areas. Universal coverage with our best tools and improved vector control is very important. We also need to improve how policy gets into the field and how quickly new policies get put into place. And I would like to see better support for countries to improve data quality, as well as more malaria endemic countries putting aside national funds to support the guidance outlined in the Global Technical Strategy for Malaria, which is really one of the greatest achievements of the WHO MPAC.
What would you like to see happen next?
I’d like to be able to retire from the lab! (Laughs.) I’m actually already retired, but the University asked me to keep my research lab going and I still have medical and graduate students working in the lab. I will certainly continue to work in the malaria field, but I’d really love to see some of the scientists I have mentored come in and take over the lab. I want to spend more time with my grand children.