Gambian women are making significant breakthroughs in the sciences where new fronts are being driven by infectious disease modelers and experts shaping developments in healthcare and disease intervention.
They include Gambian Scientist Sally Manneh, a health researcher with extensive knowledge in epidemiology, data analysis, reproductive healthcare management, and emergency response. Sally currently works as a Research Scientist at a US government institution. Miss Manneh also supports the COVID-19 response in The Gambia alongside consultations for multiple national and international organizations on women’s health, CDC grants, and public health research.
1. Take us through your journey in science and epidemiology
Growing up, I looked up to my father as my role model. He is an exemplary economist, and my mother is a businesswoman who, from a young age, taught me how to balance accounts and marketing skills. As such, I naturally gravitated toward business and economics. As a result, I started college as an economics major. However, macroeconomics and mathematics were not my cups of tea. I quickly learned that being business-minded does not ease the learning process of complex economic theories and formulas, but I still struggled through it, refusing to quit.
“The most important turning-points of life often come at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected ways.” – Napoleon Hill.
During my sophomore year, we were required to take science prerequisite courses, and the only open system was “Intro to Public Health .”I had no idea what public health was, but I signed up because I heard it was an easy (A). Taking this course was my turning point; we learned about pandemics such as the Spanish flu, among many other infectious diseases throughout history. I consumed the knowledge with such ease and vigor. Safe to say, by the end of the semester, I changed my major to public health. I transitioned into epidemiology and health analytics for my master’s when I watched a 2015 Ted Talk of Bill Gates predicting future pandemics and epidemics. I remember thinking, “Bill Gates is one of the most powerful people in the world. He must know something the general population is not privy to.” So I took the risk, which was the best decision ever. Today, epidemiology and overall public health are among the most sought and fulfilling careers. Our work saves lives and sets a precedent for preventative health, clearly demonstrated during the fight against COVID-19. My passion for my job is fulfilling and goes beyond the salary received because my work around infectious diseases saves lives and paves the path for better health.
2. How important are infectious disease epidemiologists in our world today?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), infectious diseases are a leading cause of death worldwide, particularly in low-income countries, especially young children. The role of an epidemiologist is to measure the burden of diseases, conduct research and determine preventive strategies to eradicate infectious diseases.
Now more than ever, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of epidemiologists. I believe doctors serve to cure, but epidemiologists get to the root of the problem and prevent future health issues. I hope to inspire more people, especially girls and women, to bridge the STEM gap. We can impact the health sector through exposure, encouragement, and supporting learning opportunities.
3. The global covid pandemic vastly reshaped the future of viral disease management. Why should we listen to science?
We should listen to science in the same manner, and we listen to experts in any field. For example, when your car breakdown, you take it to the mechanic, not the electrician. Ethical Science is non-bias and focuses on creating solutions to the issue without influencing politics or belief systems.
Early during the COVID-19 pandemic, we experienced a significant push and pulled from the public and the government on issues surrounding masks, vaccines, and preventative mandates. In time, the science was proven to hold in terms of the importance of the following guidance to control the infection rate. Moving forward, I believe the pandemic has taught us many lessons. Preconceived notions and biased belief systems should be curbed because the fact remains that without science, we would not be standing strong today to retell the story.
3. Women in science make significant strides worldwide with lifesaving breakthroughs during the global health crisis. How are female scientists helping to reduce disparities?
Women in science, especially women of color, are revolutionizing the face of STEM globally. Although we are significantly under-represented, we play a pivoted role as frontline workers during the pandemic. Historically, women dominated the nurse workforce and were frontline in hospitals worldwide. This fact also holds in The Gambia, where women nurses’ doctors, and other frontline workers took the lead in saving lives during the pandemic.
Secondly, internationally women in science are significantly making strides in research. Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett, among many other women, is a research fellow and the scientific lead for the Coronavirus Vaccines & Immunopathogenesis. Katalin Karikó is a female biochemist and researcher whose scientific RNA research made the mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines possible; the list goes on. In The Gambia, we have many profound female scientists such as Fatou Juka Darboe, Ndey Fatou Drammeh, Dr. Veronica Njie-Carr, Dr. Jarra Jagne, and much more globally impacting the STEM field.
Professionally, as a COVID-19 researcher, I played a significant role in New Jersey USA while simultaneously supporting emergency response in the Gambia alongside home-based organizations. Women account for less numerically, but our impact is magnanimous.
4. Are women in science being given fairer representation in board rooms and top management positions.
The workplace gender gap is a universal issue, but women are making significant strides in leadership roles. Granted, we have a long way to go, but we have come far, especially with the new gender inclusion laws. The remedy to this issue is that women who hold leadership positions should invest their time in mentorship and uplifting other women. Thankfully with the help of social media, women are connecting and sharing their experiences with the up-and-coming generation. Hopefully, with time we will see a turn of events.
It is equally the responsibility of our male counterparts to support and encourage women to achieve leadership roles. Unfortunately, in many circumstances, the males at the top make it difficult for women to climb the ladder due to gender bias. But, slowly, we shall prevail and gain equality at all levels.
5. What’s your vision for robust resilience and growth in disease management and medical access for Africa and The Gambia?
The actual change stems from leadership. Our leaders need to invest in adequate health infrastructures and systems to address the needs of the public. Most importantly, increase the salaries of essential but undervalued health workers.
For example, The Gambia’s maternal mortality rate is among the highest in the world among many other health issues, but ironically, they have about 4 945 trained health personnel.
However, there is a high attrition rate of trained health staff in the country; 50% of those who qualified in the past ten years have already been lost: medical doctors, public health officers, nurses, and laboratory technicians (HRH Profile 2014). Moreover, many health workers abandoned their occupations for higher-paying jobs due to low wages and limited resources.
Unfortunately, the people suffered, which was depicted during the height of the pandemic, due to a shortage of PPE and comprehensive resources.
My vision for the country and Africa as a continent is to implore the attention of leaders to focus more on incentivizing health workers, building proper health facilities, and consulting with a diaspora health specialist to support efforts. I am a member of the Gambian Diaspora Experts (GDEI) based in America, which consists of exceptional Gambians experts (Surgeons, nurses, engineers, scientists, etc.) willing and actively supporting initiatives in The Gambia. We need to propel real visionary change by collaborating with our homegrown experts who understand the complexities and are driven by a passion for the country.
Sally Manneh earned her BA in Public Health and a dual master’s degree in Epidemiology and Health Analytics. She is equally passionate about climate action and hopes to pursue a degree in climate change and renewable energy.