Virology in her DNA

Dr Cardosa sharing her experience in virology with the audience during a lecture on ‘Virology in the jungle: Pay Attention to What Matters to Local Communities’ at the Penang Institute.

WHEN Dr Mary Jane Cardosa was offered the position of a researcher in the Sarawak forest, she jumped at the chance even when her boss told her she was out of her mind.

The Penang-born doctor, who was then in her 40s and a lecturer at the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), received the offer from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak to set up the first virology unit in Borneo.

The university’s vice-chancellor then told Dr Cardosa that she was crazy to even consider it as she would probably have to live in wooden huts in the jungle or swamp. Not one to be deterred, she chipped in “yeah, that is the excitement of it!”

However, helming the position of founding Director of Institute of Health and Community Medicine of the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak between 1995 and 2010 was not a bed of roses.

But Dr Cardosa said she went ahead and never regretted her decision to leave Penang in 1995.

“In 1997, there was a viral outbreak in Sarawak which affected many children and babies.

“My team was entrusted to investigate the outbreak with the Health Department and medical experts,” she said in her lecture at the Penang Institute on ‘Virology in the Jungle: Pay Attention to What Matters to Local Communities’ recently.

Dr Cardosa was sharing her experience in handling an outbreak in memorial of Dr Wu Lien-Teh who was known for his work in controlling a plague which saw 60,000 lives lost in China.

She said the episode in Sarawak, which saw local and foreign experts flown in to Sibu in order to identify the virus, thrust them into the spotlight.

She became the first virologist to recognise the emergence of enterovirus 71 (EV71) as an outbreak in the region. EV71 is one of the virus which causes hand, foot and mouth (HFM) disease.

She also developed the first-ever genetically engineered vaccine against EV71, which is currently undergoing Phase One trial in Australia.

Dr Cardosa also filed a number of patents on Flavivirus and human enterovirus-like particle, vaccines and antibodies.

Her active participation in disease surveillance activities and outbreak control has led to her recognition as a respected researcher.

Dr Cardosa, 67, who is retired now, said she stays in Kuala Lumpur to coordinate and oversee the clinical trial of the EV71.

Looking back, she said she never liked comfort zones and she knew perfectly well she came back from overseas to help and serve the people.

“That was my opportunity to do something worthwhile.”

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