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Profile: Professor Osman Sankoh: better data for better health PDF Print E-mail
Development
Written by Expotimes   
Monday, 18 December 2017 17:37

Data are to health planning what pills are to pharmacy: a lack of the one impedes the effective practice of the other. And such a lack has long been one of the problems of health planners working in many African countries, says Professor Osman Sankoh(RIGHT) of the INDEPTH Network, a nongovernmental organisation based in Ghana. “Many people would come from overseas and collect cross-sectional data, and then they would go back and write it up”, he says. “But they would not be able to talk about how things change over time or what might be the cause of a health problem.”

A snapshot of how things are at one moment can’t answer such questions. Longer terms studies are needed, and INDEPTH with its mission statement “better health information for better health policy” was created some 20 years ago to do just this. A slice of the credit for what it has achieved belongs to Sankoh, first as manager of its scientific programmes and latterly as its overall Executive Director, a role from which, after 10 years, he is stepping down this month. “He’s been a real standard bearer”, says Professor Stephen Tollman of the School of Public Health at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

“He’s been unflagging in his advocacy of the Network as an instrument for monitoring progress towards the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals.”

The path that brought Sankoh to this role was littered with hurdles. Born in a village near the small Sierra Leonean town of Masiaka, he first enrolled at the University of Sierra Leone to study maths. But having then been denied a scholarship, he was unable to pay the fees and spent the next few years teaching maths and economics at local secondary schools.
In 1983, he entered Sierra Leone’s Njala University to study maths and English. This time he was able to complete the course and received a degree in education. After a couple more years as a research and teaching assistant at Njala, he won a scholarship to the Technical University of Dortmund in Germany to do a masters in statistics.

“I chose Germany because I wanted to learn another language”, he explains. But he could only start this course once he’d acquired a German undergraduate degree, which took another 3 years. By the time Sankoh had finished his MSc, politics in Sierra Leone were once again turning violent. “This was a time when things were rough in my country”, he says. “There was civil unrest. I couldn’t go back.” He stayed on in Dortmund to work as a research assistant at the Institute of Economic and Social Statistics, and embarked on a doctoral degree.

In 1999 the University of Heidelberg recruited him as a biostatistician to work on data from a large health and demographic surveillance system in Burkina Faso. When he finally returned full time to Africa, he’d spent no less than 8 years in Europe. But he has no regrets: “I enjoyed living in Germany.”

The job Sankoh came back to was not in Sierra Leone but in Accra, at the Ghanaian headquarters of the INDEPTH Network. The Network was dreamed up in the late 1990s by a small group of individuals with population-based research centres in various parts of Africa, who realised that they would achieve far more if they agreed to work together.

Through their health and demographic surveillance field sites in low-income and middle-income countries, the members of the INDEPTH Network undertake detailed longitudinal research. Their goal is to improve the lives of people in these countries by informing and influencing policy. “This is a really huge accomplishment”, says Professor Anastasia Gage of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane University in New Orleans, USA. And particularly so, she adds, “where it’s been possible to integrate data from surveillance sites with data from district hospitals”. This allows more follow-up of patients and can open the way to a better understanding of health behaviour and its motivations.

Among Sankoh’s particular contributions Gage picks out his efforts to see more people in middle-income and lowerincome countries trained in data analysis and in research. And also his wish to make collected data more available through open access systems. “He’s encouraged an interpretation of data from INDEPTH sites in a way that policy makers can understand.” She also speaks approvingly of a quite different interest of Sankoh’s: a book publishing enterprise he set up in 2009, the Sierra Leonean Writers Series.

This publishes novels, poetry, non-fiction, and technical books by authors of Sierra Leonean origin—among whom is Sankoh himself, writing as a poet. “Because of the war in Sierra Leone and its economic difficulties, he wanted to make a difference to the lives of younger people there”, says Gage.

“Osman’s goal has been to make the INDEPTH Network as strong and inclusive as it possibly can be, and to grow its contribution”, says Tollman. Looking to the future he adds, “The achievements [of INDEPTH] have been significant but, as the saying goes, the best is yet to come.”

Sankoh too foresees a continuing and growing need for the data collection, analysis, and interpretation that INDEPTH has shown itself able to provide. But he cautions that the Network’s future depends on the adequacy of core support without which it can’t function—and finding these core resources has grown harder over the years. This, however, will be a task for his successor. As he stands down from his role at INDEPTH Sankoh is returning to full-time scientific research and says his “specific interest will be to strengthen capacity for health research in Sierra Leone, my home country”.
Geoff Watts

 

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