IBRO caught up with IBRO global engagement seed grantee alumnus Dr. Vincent Brice Owona Ayissi who is a Lecturer of Molecular Biology-Bioinformatics, Department of Biochemistry, University of Yaoundé I, Cameroon. Dr. Ayissi organized multiple events in the capital of Cameroon, Yaoundé,  from 21 April to 7 May 2021, to spread awareness on the effects of drug consumption on the brain. Over the course of two weeks 700 people participated in the activities. 

1) One of your main goals was to spread awareness on the effects of drug consumption on brain diseases. Why is this important in Cameroon?

Drug consumption among the youth in Cameroon has become not only a security issue, but also a major health problem. According to the latest WHO data available in 2018, drug abuse in Cameroon caused 0.32% of total deaths, making the country 16th in the world. Moreover, recent studies carried out in 2015 reporting abusive drug consumption showed that 10% of cannabis and Tramol consumers were school-age youth and people living in precarious conditions. The drugs consumed range from traditional drugs to imported cocaine and heroin. The list of drugs consumed in schools include cigarettes, marijuana, cannabis, and amphetamine tablets. These years, Cameroon has attracted increased attention in terms of drug trafficking and transit. For instance, the economic capital Douala is increasingly described as a hub for illegal drug consumption and trafficking. The same observations are made in all other regions of the country, including rural areas. Recently, Cameroon’s anti-drug national committee (CNLD) released statistics on narcotic consumption in the country, revealing that 21% of the population has already tried a hard drug; and 10% are frequent consumers including 60% of young people aged 20-25.

Based on this situation and several complaints coming from the health and educational sectors, it was necessary to initiate actions to spread awareness on the effects of drug consumption on brain diseases. The primary targets were students from different secondary schools in Yaounde, and the students from all the faculties of the University of Yaounde 1. Drug consumption of youths doesn’t just have negative effects on their school results, but also results in the increase in criminality and initiation of brain related diseases.

2) You used a great variety of methods to reach people, including a soccer match. How did
this help you spread awareness?

As an initial step towards finding solutions, we applied to the IBRO Global Engagement Seed Grant and had the opportunity to go to the ground and spread awareness among our target population. Several strategies have been used including soccer matches, participating in TV programs on the national broadcasting channels, TV daily news edition, conferences, and seminars. Soccer is the most popular sport in Cameroon and highly appreciated by all, especially the youth. Organizing soccer matches was therefore an invaluable opportunity to gather more people and spread awareness on brain diseases. The first encounter was organized in Mendong, a popular neighborhood in the capital. The game involved taxi drivers and other young people who are high drug consumers. After a short meeting held by our team on drug disease and drug consumption, the match lasted for 90 minutes with gifts prepared and awarded to the winning team. This strategy was successful because the match showed high attendance of young people; and those involved had also spread all they learned, heard and did to others all over the city. The second match was organized at the university of Yaounde 1, between postgraduate students and lecturers. The match ended with the victory of students over lecturers and also showed high attendance.

Another strategy was to communicate on our sensitization activity on television. Using the media, especially the public media station (Cameroon Radio and Television) had several advantages. First, it is the most popular channel and has viewers all over the country, including in the rural areas. Our activities in secondary schools and university were broadcasted in the 8 PM daily journals. In addition, our team was invited to live TV shows such as ‘Cameroon Feeling’ and let us talk to the youth. As an outcome of this activity, several other private TV stations asked the team to be involved in participation in TV and radio shows on drug consumption by the youth. Other requests came from rural areas asking for more awareness meetings as well.

The last strategy was to organize meetings and conferences with university students. Students came from the Faculty of Science, Letters, Medicine and Polytechnic school. A sample of 50 students was chosen from each school; these students participated in lectures organized by our teams which included medical doctors, nurses, professors, and lecturers of neurosciences from our institution. At the end, these students promised to spread the drug awareness message in their respective institutions.

3) How did the IBRO Global Engagement Seed Grant help you?

The support obtained from IBRO was valuable and really helped to reach our objectives, both in term of sensitization efficiency and financially. One of the objectives of IBRO is to encourage and promote brain research all over the world. Applying to the Global Engagement Seed Grant was an opportunity to sensitize the youth in Cameroon against the effect of drug consumption on the development of brain diseases. Indeed, since several decades, many complaints have been arising from parents, educators and the entire society on the extremely negative effect of drug consumption by the youth with consequences on criminality and health brain diseases. The grant obtained from IBRO was an opportunity for us to reach the youth in schools and universities and sensitize them on drug consumption. Based on the feedback we received from students, taxi drivers and others, the sensitization was an opportunity for them to learn and understand what they did not know about drug consumption. The participants promised to spread the message to their communities, which was one of our main goals. Financially, the grant was of a great support to sensitize in the medias (TV and radio), to provide gifts of motivation for students in secondary schools and universities, as well as to prepare all the logistics necessary for our sensitization activity. The main organizer also takes this opportunity to acknowledge the great team of neuroscientists of the Faculty of Science of the University of Yaounde 1, who all together have accepted to freely volunteer in this project.

4) What were the impacts of your project?

Our project had an invaluable impact on students of public and private schools as well as on the staff of the University of Yaounde 1. Lectures and information on drug consumption, how to avoid hard drug consumption and how to behave towards hard drug consumers. These lectures will considerably contribute to improve school results for the students. Moto-taxi drivers were taught to avoid drug consumption and drinking before driving and they all decided to be engaged to sensitize their colleagues who did not have the chance to attend the event. This will have the advantage of reducing road accidents, armed robbery and criminality. At the University, students showed to be more motivated to pursue a research career in brain research in the long term and create neuroscience clubs in the short term. As far as university authorities is concerned, they decided to intensify the sensitization on neurological diseases and to support university research in the field. Finally, after receiving the report of our event, the authorities of the ministries of scientific research and public health promised to provide more funds for neuroscience research since until now, support has only been provided to neglected tropical diseases.

5) What still needs to be done in Cameroon and how can it be achieved?

Sensitizing the youth in Cameroon to drug consumption is a necessity. The global event organized this year was therefore a first step of a broad series of actions that still need to be taken in order to solve the issue. Despite the lack of funds, we have a team of neuroscientist and university lecturers ready to volunteer and participate in the sensitization activities. First of all, we need to continue sensitizing in other schools and higher institutions in the country. Sensitization will continue in rural areas and other regions of the country. Moreover, educative and advice sessions need to be organized for students on how to behave towards drug consumers; and for those who already take drugs, on how to improve their school performances. These activities will be extended to taxi drivers, moto-taxi drivers, and other street youths. This will have the advantage to improve school results for students, reduce road accidents and criminality.

Another aspect of the work that needs to be done is to initiate and conduct research on the field and in the laboratory. Since no data is available on the main brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson, we need to conduct epidemiology studies in order to determine the status of these diseases in Cameroon. In the laboratory, we need to identify drug compounds from our local medicinal plants by doing biochemical and chemistry analysis in the laboratory. Several master and PhD students could therefore focus on these different projects. Finally, there is the necessity to create a dexintoxication center which will take care of drug consumers, give them drugs, follow up and finally offer them the training necessary for a successful re-insertion in the society.

6) How can IBRO and other like-minded organisations continue to assist efforts like yours
in the future?

In the future, IBRO and other like-minded organizations can play a very crucial role by continuing to assist efforts like ours in several ways. Funds are needed for financing research work in epidemiology, in vivo and in vitro studies using laboratory animals and cell cultures. Funds are needed to help Master and PhD students buy reagents and equipment necessary to conduct research projects in neuroscience. Research articles will be published in IBRO journals and support their main objectives, which is research on the brain. IBRO and other organizations can help to support field work on sensitization and education of the population on brain diseases. Moreover, medical doctors and health practionners will be trained on how to identify and take care of urgent brain disease cases. IBRO could also support the association of young researchers who have decided to contribute to these research propositions aiming at reducing the burden of brain diseases in Cameroon. Young and motivated researchers need support to achieve these objectives. Experts from abroad are welcome to pay a visit to Cameroon and work together with young researchers; evaluate the situation on the field and help initiate partnership for research and funds finding. Finally, in the long term, there is the necessity to create a dexintoxication center in the city of Yaounde in order to treat, train and take care of hard drug consumers. This will have the advantage to reduce brain diseases, criminality and improve student’s school performances.

Applications are open for two types of grants supporting global engagement, outreach and brain awareness activities taking place in 2022. DEADLINE submission for both is 8 August 2022. Click here for more information.