Researchers at the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) are embarking on a study that could bring to life Uganda’s first vaccine against schistosomiasis, or bilharzia.
Dr. Moses Egesa a researcher based in the MRC/UVRI research unit said in an interview on Monday that they will be infecting healthy volunteers with the bilharzia-causing worm to develop a model that will thereafter be used in testing vaccines in Uganda.
He says they are targeting to recruit participants from three groups, which include fishing communities in the Albertine region and around Lake Victoria in addition to getting participants from tertiary institutions.
While researchers at Makerere University have previously tried studying a vaccine against Bilharzia, which the Ministry of Health (MOH) estimates to be affecting 25% of Ugandans, Egesa explains that in the new research, they are using a new approach where they are targeting the surface of the parasite.
Prof. Ponsiano Kaleebu, UVRI’s Executive Director said scientists have over the years established that the Bilharzia-causing worm is more complicated than they thought.
He says they had initially thought that preventive drugs offered to people at the highest risk of infection would help them eliminate the worm globally but this has failed. Kaleebu says they have high hopes for a vaccine which they are set to study the vaccine.
Kaleebu was speaking on the sidelines of a four-day symposium that opened on Monday in Entebbe where researchers from different countries were discussing how to tackle Bilharzia – a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD), which is being defeated elsewhere but still affecting a high number of people in Uganda.
According to Dr. Alfred Mubangizi the Assistant Commissioner of Vector-Borne and Neglected Tropical Diseases at MOH, bilharzia is currently endemic in ninety-three of the 146 districts in Uganda.
He says while the ministry is offering preventive medicine to children living around large water bodies, they have no medicine for adult sufferers and yet, it can’t be procured privately as it’s unavailable in the country.
Mubangizi says the vaccine study is a welcome move and the ministry will not hesitate to take it up once it goes through proper processes and is finally approved by relevant authorities.
Bilharzia affects the digestive system and the liver causing cancer. In severe cases, experts say sufferers tend to vomit blood. A person with bilharzia may get a fever, abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, and breathing difficulties among others.