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School of Communication professor lends audiology expertise to Nigeria

Hugh Knowles fellow and professor of communication sciences and disorders Sumitrajit Dhar recently got on a plane bound for Nigeria. He was accompanied by Dr. Robert Murphy, the John Philip Phair Professor of Infectious Diseases and the director of Northwestern’s Center for Global Health, at whose invitation he made the trip.

Dr. Murphy is a world leader in the fight against AIDS. His research has led to the development of new antiretroviral drugs and vaccines for HIV and viral hepatitis and the scale-up of therapy for AIDS and other diseases in sub-Saharan Africa. He is a special advisor to President Obama’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program in Nigeria, where he has overseen the set up of 42 clinics that currently treat over 75,000 patients with HIV/AIDS.

Many of these patients, he has found, also suffer from hearing loss—a result of either the virus or the cocktails used to treat it. He wanted to help these patients, he said, but local resources were scarce.

“In the past,” Murphy said, “we would bring our ideas to them. But we’re going about things differently now. We’re asking them what they need. The provost at the University of Ibadan, who’s a pediatrician, said they needed a workshop on how to treat auditory disorders in young children. So I flew back to the States and started searching for an expert who could help us. That’s what led me to Sumit. He’s the guy when it comes to this sort of work.”

Dhar, who directs the School of Communication’s Auditory Research Lab, was game. In January, he, Murphy, and a researcher from Starkey Hearing Technologies, a hearing device manufacturer, flew to Lagos and met with academic leaders from nine Nigerian universities.

“The main thing we did was talk,” Dhar said. “We are really starting from scratch. There is no formal audiology training there. In the U.S. and most other developed nations, there’s a model in place where every child born is screened for hearing loss. In Nigeria, the approach is still one of rehabilitation. There is one company there that makes hearing aids, the sort that we
re used in the U.S. in the ’60s and ’70s. That’s the only local solution that’s available.”

The goal, he went on, “is to draw up a national plan that would include training, care, initial detection, intervention, the whole gamut.”

Some of what works here in the States, however, may not be as “appropriate or impactful” in Nigeria, Dhar said. Thus the need for a lot of dialogue early on, which the three-day meetings provided.

“It was very eye-opening,” said Dhar, who, in addition to being impressed by the collaborative nature of the meetings, was also struck by the country itself. “My images of Nigeria were either of a safari or tribal warfare and strife, and it was neither of those,” he said, “we were in very urban spaces with economic disparities that were mind-blowing.”

What made the biggest impression on him, however, were the people, whom he likened to his colleagues at Northwestern. “I came back very hopeful about their talent,” he said, “and the desire and passion they had to do something about this.”

Murphy concurred. Everyone’s bringing a lot to this endeavor, he said, “and Sumit’s a great teacher. He has so much to offer the people we met.”