DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania, July 2009 – When Dr. Tinto Halidou first entered the medical field in Mali after studying for six years to be a pharmacist, he said he wasn't doing it for the greater good of humanity; he wanted to earn a living. But that soon changed. "I realized that just selling medicine and taking money in exchange was boring," he said with a shy smile.
It was the mid-1990s, and the world was focusing on the AIDS pandemic, including its effects in Africa. But Halidou himself began to focus on malaria, another disease that was going largely unnoticed, even as it ravaged his own continent.
He recalled the traditional healers of his youth in Burkina Faso who used their medicines to help the village and thought, "Maybe I need to go beyond pharmacy." Halidou decided he needed to use his education for a public good. "I wanted to do something for Africa," he said.
He spent the next several years travelling around the world and studying malaria. He researched the increasing resistance of the malaria parasite to particular drug treatments, alternative malaria treatments, and ways to prevent and treat malaria in children and pregnant women. In 2006, he received his doctorate in parasitology from the Institute of Tropical Medicine at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. It wasn't long before he was being offered money to work in Belgium and the United States.
But Africa kept calling him. He needed to follow his desire to make a direct impact on the lives of Africans.
"In Africa, we have many problems, and if there's anything we can do to reduce those problems, we have to do it," he said. "This other work (outside Africa) would have been interesting, but I didn't want to do it unless I could have a direct impact on the lives of Africans."
Now, just 40 years old, Halidou believes he is on the verge of making just that kind of impact. He is the principal investigator of a clinical trial in Burkina Faso to test RTS,S, the world's most clinically advanced malaria vaccine candidate. The vaccine has entered its final testing phase, and if it proves effective, it could save hundreds of thousands of lives in Africa. In the meantime, clinical trials like his are helping to build hospital and lab capacity throughout the continent—a legacy that will survive independent of the fight against malaria.
"I would get so much satisfaction knowing that because of my research, and my actions, fewer children will die," he said. "I always tell young people not to run away, that Africa needs them to stay and to fight. If they leave, who will fight for us?"