Electricity cuts in war-torn Yemen have hampered the fight against drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis, according to the award-winning microbiologist Fathiah Zakham.
“The biggest problem is the delay in diagnosing the disease,” Zakham said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media. “We need cultures and incubation that take two months to grow. However, the continuous power outages in Yemen, due to war conditions, do not allow samples to grow.”
Zakham, a specialist in molecular diagnostics, said microbiological cultures provide more accurate analysis than microscopic methods.
Her research, funded by a three-year scholarship at the University of Helsinki, focuses on drug-resistant strains of Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
Yemen has one of the highest rates of tuberculosis among Arab countries, with 48 cases per 100,000 people, according to World Bank statistics for 2019, although figures for much of Africa, Asia and the Pacific region are far higher.
About one-quarter of the world’s population has latent tuberculosis infection, along with nine million active cases annually. In 2019, tuberculosis claimed the lives of nearly 1.4 million people and infected about 10 million others.
“The biggest problem is the delay in diagnosing the disease. We need cultures and incubation that take two months to grow. However, the continuous power outages in Yemen, due to war conditions, do not allow samples to grow.”Fathiah Zakham
The situation is worse for the 465,000 people diagnosed with drug-resistant tuberculosis in 2019. According to the World Health Organisation, tuberculosis is one of the ten leading causes of death in the world.
Research Labs in Ruins
Born in Saudi Arabia, Fathiah Zakham was educated in Yemen before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from the University of Mosul, in Iraq. Between periods of teaching at Hodeidah University, in Yemen, she obtained a Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular biology from Mohammed V University, in Morocco.
Constant power outages made research at Hodeidah’s Faculty of Medicine difficult. In 2015, it became impossible to work in the faculty because of bombing and she and her colleagues moved to laboratories of the Faculty of Education.
“On May 27 of that same year, the university was bombed, leaving its research laboratories in ruins,” she recalled. “Four of my colleagues were killed in the attack, and nothing but rubble remained of the buildings.” (See a related article, “Yemen’s War Reaches Into Public-University Classrooms.”)
Despite the war and power cuts, Zakham tried to stay in Yemen, but in 2018 she began a postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Microbiology in the University Hospital Center of the Canton de Vaud (CHUV), in Switzerland.
Zakham’s research work attracted praise. “I have great respect and admiration for Dr. Zakham and her scientific achievements, despite the lack of resources and support, and the lack of equal opportunities for scientists from our region,” said Hilal Lashuel, a fellow Yemeni and associate professor of neuroscience at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
“Neither personal challenges nor outside forces have deterred her from pursuing her passion for research, nor affected her determination to develop scientific solutions and innovations to address problems that affect people’s lives in developing countries,” he said. “Not even the devastating war, or witnessing the bombing and destruction of the laboratories where she used to work.”
Traditional Methods Not Effective
Zakham moved from Switzerland to Finland, where her research is focused on diseases that affect Yemen and the Arab region in general, and in particular at looking for better ways to prevent tuberculosis.
“We are working on a molecular diagnosis of the pulmonary tuberculosis pathogen, using direct biological samples,” Zakham said.
She explained that her work involves collecting samples from patients and culturing them in special media. As Mycobacterium tuberculosis has become resistant to drugs through gene mutations, scientists use gene sequencing to explore the bacterium’s genome.
Once they get enough information about the mutant genes, they can then identify patients infected with mutant strains. Analyzing the lives of these patients helps prevent its further spread.
“I have great respect and admiration for Dr. Zakham and her scientific achievements, despite the lack of resources and support, and the lack of equal opportunities for scientists from our region,”Hilal Lashuel
A fellow Yemeni and associate professor of neuroscience at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
Next-generation sequencing, the technology Zakham is working on, allows scientists to explore massive parallel DNA sequencing at once, making diagnosis faster. “The traditional methods are not effective,” she said. “Genomic analysis is the best solution. However, the lack of advanced equipment remains an obstacle in developing countries.”
Education Is Yemen’s Future
In 2020, Zakham was one of five winners of the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World. She was recognized for her work using bioengineering and microbiology in the fight against tuberculosis.
Zakham believes that long-term peace, stability, and economic prosperity in Yemen can only come through educating the Yemeni people. The lack of a strong education system makes training the next generation of professionals, teachers, engineers, doctors, and leaders “an impossible task,” she said. “The only long-term solution, to prevent a further collapse, is education.”
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Zakham hopes to return to Yemen, even though the future of higher education there is increasingly bleak. (See a related article, “For Yemeni Women, the Path to Universities Gets Tougher.”)
“The only way to avoid this is to stop the war, start reconstruction, and have the researchers back to contribute to the reconstruction,” she said.