Dr Jeremiah Ojonemi Alabi Abalaka, is a medical doctor, surgeon and medical researcher whose claim of discovery of HIV/AIDS preventive and cure vaccine sparked controversy some years ago. The surgeon in a chat with JULIET KUYET BULUS reminisces on early life, research and life after retirement from active medical practice.
When and where were you born?
I was born on 12 December 1948 at Ajiolo Aboko Oche, Biraidu District of Dekina Local Government Area of Kogi State.
How reliable is the time of your birth?
My mother remembered I was born on a Sunday 13 days to Christmas and the CMML Missionary, Evangelist Paul Gross who christened me confirmed my mother’s recollection and told me it was in 1948.
How was life growing up as a young man?
It was very exciting. My father had no formal education but he valued the education of his children very highly. He kept telling my elder brother, Tom, and myself that the best he could do for us was to send us to school, that we must face our studies otherwise we would end up being farmers like him, that just as we could see God would would never do his farm work for him, we should know that it is an insult to God to ask him to make us pass our exams and that we must never ask God to help us do anything that we can achieve. He inculcated in us right from childhood that problems exist to be solved, that it is far more honourable to try and solve any problem and fail, than to stupidly stay looking on without confronting the problem.
What schools and or institutions did you attend?
My early education started at Igala Native Authority (NA) Junior Primary School Abocho, from January 1956 to December 1958 and Native Authority Senior Primary School, Anyigba both in Dekina local government area of Kogi State. I had double promotion in primary school. In January 1961 I was admitted to Ochaja Boys Secondary School and was given a double promotion and I completed with division one and distinctions in all seven subjects offered in December 1964. In January 1965 I was at St. Paul’s College (now Kufena College) Zaria, Kaduna State where I completed the Upper Six in 1966 with passes at principal level in 3 major subjects. In October 1967 I gained admission to the Faculty of Medicine Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and graduated with Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) Degree in 1972. I later went to the premier University of Ibadan for a postgraduate certificate in Immunology and passed with distinction. From the year 1974 to 1979 I did postgraduate training in Surgery. I am a fellow of the Nigerian Medical Council in Surgery (FMCS) a specialist qualification and an equivalent of the British FRCS and FMCS 11 (Final), a professional qualification that entitles the holder to be appointed Consultant in Surgery in Nigeria, 1979.
As a brilliant student, you never struggled academically. What are your honours?
I have won numerous prizes in subjects and for being the best student in Form 1, 111, 1V, and V in secondary school, double promotion from form 1 to form 111 from 1961 to 1964. I also won class prizes for the best science student both in the Lower and Upper Sixth classes as well as the best student in Physics and Zoology in Upper Six at St Paul’s College, Zaria. I was the runner up of the American Embassy, National John F Kennedy Memorial Essay Competition for Upper Sixth student from 1965 to 1966. During my undergraduate training at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria. I made distinctions in Chemistry, Physiology, Biochemistry, Microbiology, Community Medicine, Surgery, Obstetrics, Gynaecology and Paediatrics from 1967 to 1972. In 1972, I was given the Vice Chancellor Prize as the best all round graduating student and Professor Nicholson prize for the best graduating student in Chemical Pathology, Faculty of Medicine, ABU Zaria.
Why did you choose the medical profession?
Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics were actually my best subjects in secondary school. Unfortunately, my father did not know much about other professions except the doctors they were seeing at Idah Hospital. He told us that his aim was to have at least one of his children (Tom and I) become a doctor. Tom did not do Biology in his secondary school. Against the wish and advice of all my secondary school teachers, I chose to be a medical doctor to make my father happy for all his sacrifices towards our education.
Are you saying the decision was accidental?
It was circumstantial.
What are your working experiences?
My first working experience was from 1962 to 1963 when I served as an enumerator for National Census. I was a bank clerk at the Barclays Bank (DCO) now Union Bank from December 1966 to September 1967. At various times in the Institute of Health, Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital, from 1972 to 1973. I was a Pre-registration House Officer and a Senior House Officer 1973 to 1974. Then a registrar in Surgery from 1974 to 1976 and a Senior Registrar 11 in Surgery 1978 to 1979. In 1977 I was on Clinical attachment as Post FRSC Registrar in Surgery, Royal Infirmary and Broad Green Hospitals, Liverpool England until September 1978 and was a honorary lecturer in Surgery, Faculty of Surgery University of Liverpool, England from October 1977 to September 1978. I was a Senior Medical Officer in charge of Medical Centre, Ashaka Cement Company Gombe, Gombe State 1979 to 1983.
I was employed by Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited as an Assistant General Manager, later re – designated Assistant Director. I was directly responsible to the General Manager / Chief Executive, Magaji M. Inuwa from 1983 to 1989. From 1989 to 1990 I was Chief Consultant Surgeon Kano State Health Service Management Board and in 1990 I was in the Benue State Health Services Management Board and was later deployed to Kogi State upon the creation of the state in 1991. I was the head of department of Surgery at the General Hospitals, Makurdi, Benue State and later Lokoja, Kogi State respectively. From 1995 to 2001 I was at the Gwagwalada Specialist Hospital, Abuja FCT from where I retired and established Medicrest Specialist Hospitals Gwagwalada, Abuja FCT, in 1997 I started research into HIV/ Aids pandemic in private practice.
Tell us about your discovery of HIV preventive/cure vaccine in 1999?
As a surgeon, I was confronted with the newly identified AIDS virus, the HIV. As the medical world kept releasing features of the virus, the failed attempts to develop any effective preventive vaccine against, the claim that there was no known cure, and so on, I decided it was an open field even with my very rudimentary training in Immunology. I was motivated by the successful efforts of people like Edward Jenner (smallpox) and Louis Pasteur who though not a medical doctor worked out an ingenious and effective curative vaccination against rabies without the world of his day knowing about viruses. I was definitely in a better position. I knew the features of the virus and why others had been failing at efforts to develop safe and effective cure and prevention of the rampaging HIV and its pandemic. I had a solid foundation to build on. My aim was to develop a preventive vaccine for myself to protect me in the professional hazard I faced as a surgeon operating on patients whose HIV status, I did not know back then in 1990 to 1991 because tests for HIV screening were not available in Nigeria then except in Lagos. So, I quietly joined others worldwide but using only my family resources. At the end of 1998, I got four cases of HIV infected persons that had been cured. I proceeded very easily to get a safe and effective HIV preventive remedy. Of course, I was the first beneficiary. After three months of taking three doses of my preventive remedy, I challenged myself six times in 1999 with the blood of six different HIV+ persons. Up till now, 20 years on, I have not developed HIV and no anti-HIV antibodies in my blood.
What were the issues raised against your HIV vaccine?
All the many issues that have been raised only confirmed that those raising the issues are operating at a completely different wavelength from me. If you pinpoint any particular issue raised against my discoveries, I will address the issue in detail to show clearly that the issue raised reflects the huge gulf between those raising the issue and me. For anyone to make any new discovery, the person must abandon the views, dogmas and thinking of the huge majority of the experts of their day. The Wright brothers had to do that to develop the first aeroplane.
There were stories that your cure vaccine only succeeded in suppressing the virus for some time and that those you claimed to have cured later died of the virus?
Firstly, people enjoy flying all sorts of stories, many, if not most, without any basis. I wish the question identified the names of persons that supposedly died. It should be noted that I always avoid publicly revealing the identity of my patients. If the hospital number of the patient is mentioned, I will be able to cross check my records on such a person about which stories are been spread. When one says a person cured of any condition later died of that condition, reliable evidence must be produced to confirm that the person indeed died of the condition.
A person cured of any condition may die of other unrelated conditions because no single condition, disease or infection is the only cause of death. Secondly, there is need for precision and uniformity in the definition of words especially when dealing with scientific issues. Since I still claim my remedies cure and prevent HIV, HCV and HBV, it is essential that we all know what we mean by cure of these three viral infections. Fortunately, the developed world has come out with what they accept as ‘cure’ for HCV infection. They were forced to do so because they had developed combination antiviral drugs that they say, correctly in my view cure HCV infection. Before one can talk about cure of an infection, one must establish that the infection existed before treatment started. For HIV, HCV and HBV, the infection is confirmed by direct identification of the viral RNA or DNA in the blood of the person. Please note that the presence of antibodies against parts of the virus is not enough to establish the presence of the infection.
The infection is confirmed only when the viral RNA or DNA is found in the blood. Even in HIV in which effective antiretroviral treatment ART may cause none detection of HIV RNA and DNA in the blood, if the ART is stopped, the HIV RNA and DNA reappear in the blood in a few days. For HCV infection, this means HCV RNA has been identified in the person’s blood, the person is declared cured of his HCV infection if he meets two conditions; if he has no detectable HCV RNA in his blood at the point he completes his course of treatment, secondly, if he still has no detectable HCV RNA in his blood three months after he completed his course of treatment. The treatment is then said to have achieved a sustained virologic response, SVR. In other words, cure of HCV infection is the absence or non-detection of HCV RNA in the blood of a person not only at the time he completes his treatment but also three months after the completion of his treatment for HCV whose RNA was detected in his blood at the point, he started treatment.
To my mind, it is very sensible to adopt this definition of cure to all three infections of HIV, HCV and HBV. The first obvious fall out of this definition of cure is that the antibody status of the person is completely irrelevant. And for many reasons, the antibody status should be irrelevant. One may be infected and highly infective for weeks and months with these viruses without having any antibodies against the viruses. Conversely, one may also have anti-bodies against these viruses without having the viruses in their body. It is therefore very correct to exclude a person’s antibody status in deciding cure or otherwise for these viral infections. The aim of effective curative treatment of these three viral infections is the achievement of a sustained virologic response, (SVR) three months after completion of treatment. ART does not cure HIV infection because it does not achieve an SVR even a few days after stopping ART. With these explanations, it serves no purpose for me to say anything more about vague stories flying about.
How can you puncture these issues to convince the Federal Government of Nigeria given the fact that world over scientists have not successfully found a cure for the HIV pandemic?
Firstly, note that we have no scientific culture in Nigeria. Secondly, in Nigeria, I am the only person as far as I know that has tried developing HIV remedies. Those criticising me have made no effort at all. Since 1984, researchers worldwide have been spending billions of US dollars of public and private funds to develop HIV vaccines. None has succeeded. I have. Instead of my country’s government to take it up and reap the immense benefits of my solo research effort, they are condemning and criticising me without taking any step to verify my claims. What does the Nigerian government stand to lose in interacting with me and sending to me HIV+ persons to see if my claim is true or not? To my mind and thinking, the government loses nothing. But here again, the Nigerian government’s thinking is years away from my thinking and it is very unfortunate. The biggest shocking news is that my remedy cures and prevents not only HIV but the dreaded and dreadful hepatitis viruses, HBV and HCV. The world has an effective vaccine that prevents HBV but no cure. The world has costly and toxic drug combination remedies that cure HCV infection after daily treatment for 12-20 weeks but no preventive vaccine against HCV. My remedies prevent and cure all three infections: HIV, HCV and HBV. It is incredible that any government will ignore such a feat by its citizen who achieved it with his family resources. That is our country Nigeria. Like many others, Nigeria is the only country I have.
What are your expectations from the Federal government on your preventive/cure vaccine for HIV that remains a humanity health challenge for more than 30 years after it was discovered?
It is a basic principle of life and living that one must not condemn anybody without giving them a hearing. No Nigerian Federal Government has given me any form of hearing about my vaccines since 1999. It is also elementary that if anyone claims he has made any scientific discovery like mine, his claim should be investigated by institutions, public and private. For 20 years and despite the scientific publication in 2004 of my work in the international Journal called Vaccine, the world including my own country’s government have opted to live in shameful disdain of such feats. Yet they claim they are all out for made in Nigeria products. Is that not talking with the tongue in the cheek?
What is your advice to the body of knowledge on HIV and to dispel the United Nation’s notion on research into HIV vaccine?
Is there anything to be gained in talking to the deaf? Is there any point in advising anyone who says he does not need your advice?
What will you like to tell the present administration on the need to do the needful to safe humanity instead of remaining aloof on the face of the feat made in your HIV research and discovery?
The same basic things. It is a basic principle of life and living that one must not condemn anybody without giving them a hearing. No Nigerian Federal Government has given me any form of hearing about my vaccines since 1999. It is also fundamental that if any one claims he has made any scientific discovery like mine, his claim should be investigated by institutions, public and private.
Why do you think government should harken to the advice of former US President Bill Clinton when he said Nigeria should team up with the US on rapid development of HIV vaccine when he visited Nigeria in 2000?
This is excellent recollection from you. At the time that then US President Clinton made that public pronouncement in 2000 during his Visit to Nigeria, UNAIDS had produced its guidelines on HIV preventive vaccines development. In that document, UNAIDS stated inter alia that only the developed nations could conceive ideas of how to develop HIV vaccines. President Clinton clearly went against the UNAIDS view by publicly urging Nigeria to team up with the US for the rapid development of HIV vaccines. Our government then failed to grasp the import of President Clinton’s statement. Nigeria up till now is not even a country thinking of becoming a developed country.
So what prompted President Clinton to urge Nigeria to team up with the US for the rapid development of HIV vaccines was that I am the only Nigerian in Nigeria that has been involved in HIV vaccine development and he must have been informed, probably by the US Embassy in Nigeria that there is credibility in my HIV vaccines claims. Heading a government, President Clinton could only deal with the Nigerian government, he could not deal with an ordinary Nigerian citizen like me. But as usual, the Nigerian government then was not cerebral enough to even understand President Clinton. Then and now, Nigeria remains the only country that has developed effective and safe vaccines that cure and prevent HIV, HBV and HCV. Of course, if the Nigerian Govt were to whisper that to current US President Trump now, the Nigerian government will see how a responsible government that places premium on scientific research responds to such news. From the very top to the very bottom, Nigeria places no premium on scientific research or discoveries. Unless Nigeria changes its primitive and retrogressive stance on scientific research and discoveries, the future is very bleak for Nigeria.
What presently occupies your day since retirement?
My days are very busy learning about different topics on the internet since android phones have become huge libraries on all subjects and topics. I also have life’s problems to confront. The pervasive negatives of insecurity, lack of respect for human life, committing atrocities in the name of religion, intolerance, collapse of education and other institutions continue to be a huge source of worry to me because I see a very bleak future for my dear and only country Nigeria. My days are full every day.
How can the lives of the aged in the society be improved by the Federal Government?
The first point to make is that all the arms of our governments at all levels need extensive improvement. Without such improvements in place, it is a mere illusion to expect any government at any level to improve the lives of any group in the society. All Nigerians must change their attitudes and behave responsibly in the public interest, we must study and work hard. Good as they are, sport, games, music, dances and beliefs alone never make any nation or society great or developed. We must study, work hard and embrace honesty for the future of Nigeria and Nigerians. We must end our primordial embrace of tribe and nepotism. We must learn to talk to one another with decency, humility and respect.
Where were you on 1st October 1960?
I was in Primary 6 at the time.
What did independence mean to you at the time?
All it meant to me then was what we were told. We were told that we would be ruling ourselves instead of the British ruling us. We had all been singing the British anthem and observing British public holidays. In 1960 and before Oct 1, 1960, we all learnt the Nigerian National anthem, “Nigeria we hail thee …”)
Did you hope for a better Nigeria?
Yes. Every right-thinking person will want their country to excel because when it succeeds, we as a people succeed.
Have your expectations been met?
It is good to have hopes but when it is a hope founded on what others do, one is completely incapacitated. What became of my hopes is the history of Nigeria since Independence and unfortunately, we are where we are today.
How would you compare your time and the present era?
The present time is also my era since I am still alive.
What are your favourite food?
Pounded yam or Ójòka with fresh okro or ogbono soup.
What forms of relaxation do you engage in?
Golf, facing challenges, playing ayo, called ichę in Igala, reading, among others.
When did you get married and how did you meet your wife?
We got married on 28 December 1974 and we met during the clinical years of my medical training at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and I was attracted by various factors. The union gave birth to three children.
What is your advice to the youths?
The future of any country or society lies with the youth. My advice to the youth and everyone else is to ask all of us to embrace the six infallible and ever reliable teachers and adviser: What, Why, Where, When, Who and How. Let us not confuse beliefs with realities because they are opposite. Beliefs in anything have never caused any society or country to develop. Only hard working and deep-thinking citizens make countries and societies great or developed.