It was while working in a UK research lab that Francisca Mutapi first noticed the other scientists were approaching treatment to a disease she’d known since childhood from a totally different angle.

Mutapi, who grew up in Zimbabwe, was stunned that her fellow researchers weren’t attempting to develop a treatment for children who suffered from schistosomiasis — an infection caused by a parasitic worm that lives in freshwater in tropical and subtropical regions.

Also known as bilharzia, the parasite can remain in the body for years, can damage organs such as the bladder, kidney and liver, and although it is treatable with medication, for many years drugs were only developed for older children and adults.

Mutapi said she was concerned that preschool age children were not being treated for the disease. Praziquantel, the drug that is predominantly used to treat bilharzia, which is classed as a neglected tropical disease (NTD), is used to treat adults and children above the age of six.

“Yet, by the time children got to the age of six they were already ill because they were being infected when they went to the rivers with their mothers, but we couldn’t treat them,” Mutapi said.

She asked her peers why children under six years old could not receive the treatment, and was told that when the drug was developed, it was not tested on younger children.

Mutapi said she was told that the drug, which works in synergy with the immune system, may not be effective in children as “their immune system isn’t well developed.”

“I said, ‘Well, if their immune system wasn’t well developed, childhood vaccinations wouldn’t work because we give them to children under five.’ Then they said: ‘we’re not sure it’ll be safe’. I said, ‘has someone done the studies?’”

Read the full article about the contributions of Francisca Mutapi by Jacky Habib at Global Citizen.