Scientist finally finds way home after Cameroon research

All in a day’s work: Dr Zubaidah on the field in Cameroon, collecting blackfly samples to test a diagnostic tool to detect the river blindness disease agent.

PETALING JAYA: As the world tightened its borders at the height of the Covid-19 crisis in March, a Malaysian scientist was left stranded far away from home during her research efforts in Cameroon.

Dr Zubaidah Ya’cob, who is from Universiti Malaya’s Tropical Infectious Diseases Research & Education Centre, had been in the African country since mid-January and was meant to stay there only until May.

She and a team of researchers had received an international grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to evaluate a new diagnostic tool developed to detect the agents behind onchocerciasis, commonly known as river blindness disease in Cameroon.

River blindness is caused by the parasitic worm Onchocerca volvulus that is transmitted to humans after they are bitten by infected blackflies of the genus Simulium, and is estimated to affect some 500,000 people in African and South American countries.

Although Zubaidah, an entomologist, was living in the remote Adamawa region, and was warned by the United States embassy not to step into town without an escort, her first few months of research were relatively uneventful.

“I was able to visit the villages there and was even able to visit the study site several times before they announced (Covid-19) lockdowns in Cameroon (in March).

“As international travel was banned, the other co-researchers from the University of Liverpool were not able to even enter the country.

“After that, all the lab equipment was brought to the house I was staying in, and the laboratory staff members would go to the field to collect the blackflies, and I would proceed with the lab work in the house.

“It was going well until I found out on May 12 that my return flight back to Malaysia was cancelled,” she said, adding that her visa expires in July.

Zubaidah, 36, who was accompanied by her husband on the trip, soon found herself running low on cash for rent and other necessities.

“The nearby town was in such a remote area that they do not even have credit or debit card facilities. I had activated my bank card for overseas usage, but it was rejected,” said Zubaidah, who eventually resolved the matter with her bank.

A new problem arose: there were no flights home.

“The first repatriation flight arranged by the High Commission in Nigeria was on May 17, and the tickets cost US$2,000 (RM8,500) per person. But it was cancelled.

“They tried to arrange a second flight, but it got cancelled as well. I felt hopeless, and couldn’t deal with the cancellations anymore because we were running low on funds,” she said.

A friend in Malaysia, who was a travel agent, was eventually able to arrange for a flight home a month later via Air France, and later Etihad, though it came at a cost of about RM13,000 per person.

“However, I am grateful that I could return home. There were fewer than 20 people, including crew members, on the flight from Abu Dhabi,” said Zubaidah, who finally landed in Malaysia on June 25.

The harrowing experience aside, her research team achieved their goal of collecting samples from 15,000 blackflies to be tested using the screening tool developed by New England Biolabs.

“We managed to build research connections with the Academy of Science in Cameroon, and according to them, I was the first Asian – and a young female to boot – who did research on infectious diseases there.

“My advice to all Malaysians, especially young researchers, is to not hesitate in applying to do research in Official Development Assistance countries like those in Africa – because this is a real platform for a scientist to contribute to communities who are in need.”

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