A mission to improve healthcare in Africa
Charles is passionate about increasing patient access to treatment in Africa. He is the project leader of the Roche Africa strategy, which aims to improve access to innovative medicines in sub-Saharan Africa.
I grew up in a village in the Brong Ahafo region of southern Ghana. My father was a civil servant and my mother was a schoolteacher. Both had modest salaries, and they struggled to support me and my seven brothers and sisters.
While the other boys were out playing soccer, I often had to stay in bed with a high fever, sweating and nausea. Because I was ill so often, the other kids called me “sickler.”
Many years later, I learned that the cause of my illness was probably malaria. This disease kills more than 5,000 children every week in Africa.
As a consequence of my illness, I had a lot of time to read. I devoured every book I could get my hands on. That helped me in school, and soon I became the best pupil in class.
When I was in secondary school, I went to see a pharmacist and told him about the regular bouts of fever. He prescribed a Roche anti-malarial medicine and I got so much better. That is when I decided to become a pharmacist.
I worked my way through university by transporting raw materials and mixing medicines that lecturers sold in their own pharmacies. After graduating, I joined the Roche affiliate in Ghana in 1998 as a sales representative. The teaching hospitals that I called on were more than eight hours apart by car over dusty, badly maintained roads that turned to mud in the rainy season.
One day, I arrived at a hospital and saw that a young girl was in a coma due to a bacterial infection. The doctor told me that he wanted to treat her with a Roche antibiotic, but it was too expensive. I pleaded for treating the girl for at least the first 48-72 hours to give her a fighting chance. When I left, I gave him my remaining free sample vials of the antibiotic.
The doctor asked me if I knew the child who was running through the halls, laughing and playing. He explained that it was the same girl who had been in a coma. I almost wept.
That doctor was instrumental in writing a protocol that became institutional policy in that teaching hospital in Ghana for treating severe infections with the Roche antibiotic for the first 48-72 hours. That change in healthcare policy has saved many lives.
I worked my way up to being the Field Force Manager of the Roche affiliate in Ghana, and in 2008 was asked to become Country Manager of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with over 170 million people.
In Nigeria, healthcare authorities were mainly focused on the communicable diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. These decision-makers were unaware of the real disease burden of hepatitis and women’s cancers.
Patient access in Nigeria to hepatitis diagnosis and treatment has increased dramatically.
We worked with the global organisation of Roche for a grant to obtain reliable epidemiological figures, starting with hepatitis. When the data was analysed, the prevalence of hepatitis in the population was 12% – significantly higher than the 8% estimate provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) at the time and three times higher than the prevalence of HIV.
That shocked healthcare authorities into action. Now there is a national policy in Nigeria to diagnose and treat hepatitis B and C. Roche Diagnostics has leased sophisticated screening tools at a minimal charge. Roche Pharmaceuticals has made a large price reduction for its hepatitis drug.
As a result, patient access in Nigeria to hepatitis diagnosis and treatment has increased dramatically. Lives are being saved, but there is still much to be done. We are now working to implement the same approach for breast, ovarian and cervical cancer.
I am passionate about creating a healthcare environment in Africa with good diagnostic centres, affordable medicines and broad insurance coverage.
I am convinced that our experience in Nigeria can serve as a blueprint for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. This is a dynamic, urbanising region that already has 50 cities with a population of more than one million. By 2040, the population is expected to reach two billion.
To achieve a breakthrough in patient access on this continent, we must invest for the long-term and work with local authorities to shape healthcare policy. Roche cannot do this alone. We need to partner with international foundations, private companies and non-governmental organisations such as the UN and WHO.
I believe we can eradicate hepatitis and greatly improve cancer treatments. And I want Roche to be known as a leader in finding solutions.