Treating leprosy with a new mindset

Updated: Mar 17 2002, 05:30am hrs
The award makes me happy but the gender bit is a bit flustering, says a smiling Dr Indira Nath from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, who is this years LOreal-UNESCO winner for Women In Science for her work in the field of immunology. Dr Nath received the award$20,000 and a scrollin Paris recently. Incidentally, she is the first Indian to have received this honour. As doctors, we dont have gender biases and doctors in India compete with men at all levels. However, having said that, let me reiterate that it feels good to have received it, she acknowledges. An internationally renowned authority on leprosy, Ms Nath has identified a mechanism, which causes a deficiency in the immune response system. This discovery constitutes a significant advance towards the development of treatment and vaccines for this disease. The winners for the award are chosen from among 100 candidates recommended by more than 800 scientists of international renown. The award is given with the objective of encouraging women scientists across the world. LOreal tied up with UNESCO in 1998 to promote the role of women scientists with the For Women in Science programme. Through this programme, each year, five LOreal-UNESCO awards are given to outstanding women scientists whose research efforts in Life Sciences represent major progress. The core idea behind the award being to award women scientists whose research, whether fundamental or applied, has created new and revolutionary methods for better treatment of diseases and the betterment of human living conditions. Under this initiative, every year, five laureates representing the five continents and 10 fellowship winners from all over the world are selected for recognition. Each fellowship is awarded $10,000. Sixty-one year old Dr.Nath is at present S N Bose Research Professor, one of the five named national professorships endowed by the Indian National Science Academy in recognition of outstanding achievements in research. Her area of interest is immunology with special reference to infectious diseases. A Padmashri awardee, Dr Nath has worked in immunology in the 70s and 80s when immunology was at its infancy in India. Later she concentrated on human leprosy as India had a quarter of the worlds population of leprosy patients and the disease pattern suggested an immunological basis. I have always felt a lot for leprosy, elaborates Dr Nath. She feels for it more so since the attention of the world on HIV and tuberculosis is shrinking the focus from leprosy. Having received the awards, she says, she hopes a lot will be done on the disease. Dr Nath has five siblings and her father was in government service. Since his was a transferable job, I studied in various schools. My mother married my father when she was 10 year old, so you can imagine what her educational qualifications must have been. She made that an excuse and send the children to do the shopping, claiming maths was something she could not fathom, she recollects. Carrying on with studies wasnt as simple, though. Says she: We are Andhraites and though I always excelled in studies, my mother wanted me to get married when I was 16. However, my father, an engineer by profession encouraged me to study. It was his insistence that made Dr Nath get through AIIMS and finally join it. She belongs to the second batch of AIIMS passouts. Says she: It was here that I was exposed to the human face of leprosy. One of our younger doctors at AIIMS would do social work in the leprosy colonies, which were situated near the Yamuna. Inspired, I joined his group. Seeing the way these people were segregated and lived in inhuman conditions moved me to study and research the subject. Even today as it was then the dermatology department does not see as much as of leprosy patients as they should. There was no immunology department at the AIIMS. I learnt a lot on the subject from Dr Reiss at the Royal College of Surgeons and when I came back to India as an MD in Pathology, no one was interested in my work. I was able to get WHO grants and then later set up the first department in India in 1986 at the AIIMS with a view to training biomedical personnel in immunology, molecular biology and modern biology aspects. Dr Nath says Indias late prime minister Indira Gandhi gave a fillip in raising awareness of leprosy during 1985-86 and a number of NGOs were also set up. Today, the total number of cases of the disease remains the same but one does not see as much of swollen faces and ears as the symptoms are detected early. However, four lakh cases, which is a very large number, emerge in a year in the country. The strides she has taken in her career have been possible, says Dr Nath, because her in-laws were very supportive. My sister-in-law took care of my daughter while I was pursuing my studies. And the profession runs in the family. Her husband Rajeshwar Nath is a pediatrician. Her daughter is a D.Phil in Cellular Biology from Oxford and is married to an Englishman from the same faculty from Oxford. Recalling her early days at AIIMS, Dr Nath says that her teachers were very good and I am the longest living lecturer of AIIMS. I would like to continue with my research.