It was his own background including childhood sickness that inflamed Professor Muki Shey’s passion for finding health solutions in resource-constrained settings.
“Because of where I come from, helping people with limited resources has always interested me,” he says. “I mean, in the Cameroon, it is payment before service. So even if people succeed in getting to health centers they often don’t have the money to pay for medical help when they get there. So it piqued my interest from early on to see how can we make this better – how do we improve health, especially in such remote areas?”
Fast forward to 9 March this year, the South African Medical Research Council conveyed on Shey a silver award for his “outstanding contribution to health research”. At the awards ceremony, Shey was joined by his wife Eunice, also from Cameroon, who is studying toward a Master’s in Education and Psychology at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
The couple has three children and live in Goodwood.
At UCT, Shey’s great ambition is to help create a vaccine that reliably prevents tuberculosis (TB) in adults.
Presently, only the BCG [Bacillus Calmette-Guérin] vaccine is available for TB and while it prevents severe TB in children, there is little evidence that it works in adults.
The World Health Organization estimates that TB led to an estimated 1.6 million deaths in 2021, with 98% of cases occurring in low- and middle-income countries where resources are often limited.
Since 2018, Shey has spearheaded research into TB in healthcare workers from around Cape Town, scanning for those who over at least five years of high exposure to the disease at hospitals or clinics have never been infected.
“So we want to take a step back and look into these individuals with natural resistance, to see how they naturally work to protect themselves. And then how we can use that information to make a better vaccine,” says the 43-year-old scholar from Nkumkov-Nseh in North West Cameroon.
Inside Shey’s office, where on a cloudless day one can look over Table mountain, a large placard bears testimony to the study. It is titled: Mycobacteria-specific cytokine and antibody responses in healthcare workers with resistance to Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection.
In Shey’s study, they assessed over 850 healthcare workers. Of these, 132 have no evidence of infection with TB. The healthcare workers were from the Brooklyn Chest Hospital in Milnerton, the Khayelitsha District Hospital, the Mitchells Plain Hospital, the DP Marais Hospital in Retreat, some community clinics, and medical wards at academic hospitals Groote Schuur and Tygerberg.
Similar research studies are ongoing at the Aurum Institute in Johannesburg and in Kampala, Uganda. “In Uganda, they’re looking at household contacts of TB patients who don’t get infected in families where there is high exposure of TB. In Johannesburg, they’re looking at gold mines – at mine workers who have been exposed for a long time and who also have not been infected in that time. So we’re all trying to answer a similar question from different angles.”
Speaking to Spotlight, Shey reaches into his pocket for a handkerchief. Lifting his glasses, he wipes away tears. “Oh excuse me, this makes me emotional,” he says. He is relaying a memory from February when he, along with Professor Novel Chegou of Stellenbosch University (SU), and ten other scientists from Cameroon, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria – collectively known as the All-Africa Academic Alliance – unveiled a new wooden board of honours at Fezeka High School in Gugulethu. On the board, the names of top-performing pupils are scripted in gold. Apart from the honours board, the alliance arranges sponsors, adding their own money, to buy the children book vouchers, school uniforms, and cash prizes of up to a R1 000.
“This one girl, we were trying to give her a prize,” says Shey. “When she saw her name on the board, she turned around,[and] looked at her mother who was right at the back. She just jumped up and started crying and ran straight to her mother. They hugged and had a moment there – just from seeing that acknowledgment of her name, which will now be in the school hall forever. This moment is ingrained in my head.”
Shey is the president and events coordinator of the alliance, which has gifted incentives at the school over the past ten years for twelve subjects, including mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, English, and business studies – while also providing pupils with opportunities to shadow scientists at tertiary institutions in fields ranging from medicine to engineering.
“For example,” he says. “one student came to observe me here at the University of Cape Town the year before last. For three days, I showed her the pathology lab. She saw human tissue from people with different diseases and how to process them. I showed her how I do research and other things. By the end of the three days, she made up her mind, she wanted to do medical sciences. So she applied at the Stellenbosch University and she got in.”
Shey describes his own journey from Nkumkov to Cape Town as a miracle – and now he wants to give back.
He is also a member of another charitable organisation – Bui Family Union South Africa – which runs projects to help the children of refugees and orphans in Cape Town while assisting in bringing medical care to the region of his birth in Cameroon. Among other things, he says they assisted a medical facility built in Nkumkov in 2016 to buy six medical beds and medicinal basics like paracetamol. Political unrest interrupted construction but the centre was recently completed.
A hustle and a triumph
The youngest of four children born to Shey Dairu Wirba and Fatuma Shee, Shey’s parents were local farmers who did not attend school. Deathly malaria in the area sparked Shey’s early dreams to work in medicine, which were compounded when he contracted chicken pox when he was eight years old. At the time, the nearest health facility was three to four hours away by foot, but his parents did not even carry their sick son there, for they couldn’t afford the fees to have him treated.
Over two months of taking traditional treatments, he healed. To this day, chicken pox scars bear witness to Shey’s triumph over this disease in his childhood.
When he was in grade nine, Shey’s parents could not afford for him to continue school. This is when his older brother, Charles Shey Wiysonge, stepped in. Wiysonge, then a medical student on a Cameroonian government scholarship, used his grant money to pay for Shey to finish school and to complete a degree in biochemistry at the University of Yaoundé, in the Cameroonian capital.
Later, Wiysonge headed to South Africa to continue his medical studies at UCT. Here, Wiysonge took up employment at Groote Schuur under the late Professor Bongani Mayosi. He studied part-time towards a PhD in Medical Microbiology, focusing on childhood vaccination with Shey following him to enrol at UCT for an Honours degree in Infectious Diseases in 2005.
“So my brother Charles was paying for himself and paying for me,” says Shey. “Even when I came to South Africa, he paid for a part of my Honours degree. But I was hustling too. I was going to school from Monday to Friday and then on weekends, I would hustle. On Saturdays, I would take a train to Retreat, for example, walking around selling things like belts and wallets, and cell phone covers. So this is how I paid a part of my honours. Luckily then I got a scholarship that paid for my Master’s and my PhD.”
In December 2012, Shey and Wiysonge received their PhDs at UCT on the same day. And while their father had passed away by this time, their mother travelled to Cape Town to attend their graduation ceremony.
Putting smiles on children’s faces
Today, Shey is an infectious disease immunologist and an associate professor serving as a chief research officer at UCT’s Department of Medicine at the Faculty of Health Sciences adjacent to Groote Schuur.
“My goal is to contribute to developing a vaccine that will be widely available worldwide, saving the lives of people,” he says. “So I work every day. I try to work as hard as I can to really achieve that because sometime – maybe in the next 10 years, 15 years, 20 years – it will happen. We don’t know, some of these things take longer. At least one day I hope to make a difference.”
Meanwhile, Wiysonge is a professor affiliated to both SU and UCT. He is also the Senior Director of Cochrane South Africa at the South African Medical Research Council.
The two brothers are paying to put the eight children of their two sisters through school back in Cameroon. “What is R1 000 in my bank account when I can put a smile on a child’s face?” says Shey.