A recent international award for Dr Shaikha Salim Al Arrayed crowns her three decades of distinguished service in battling genetic diseases in the Kingdom.
As Bahrain’s most senior genetic diseases specialist, Dr Shaikha Al Arrayed has been at the forefront of the Kingdom’s long and hard battle against hereditary diseases.
After setting up a genetics clinic in Salmaniya Hospital back in 1984, she has spearheaded extensive campaigns aimed at reducing the incidence of genetic diseases in Bahrain as well as improving the management of patients with this condition. The results are apparent. In the 1980s, out of every 1,000 babies born in the Kingdom, 21 were affected by the sickle cell gene. The number is now close to four babies for every 1,000 births. Dr Shaikha has now been awarded the Dr A.T. Shousha Foundation Prize and Fellowship for her significant service in the field of public health, specifically recognising her role in the control of genetic diseases.
The Dr A.T. Shousha Foundation was established in 1966 in memory of Dr Aly Tewfik Shousha, the first World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean. The annual prize, consisting of a sum in the order of CHF2,500 and a bronze medal, is awarded to a person who has made the most significant contribution to improving health in the Eastern Mediterranean, the geographical area in which Dr A.T. Shousha served the Organisation.
“I’m very happy and proud that of all the Arab countries, my work on the control of genetic diseases has been recognised. We were able to protect thousands of children from getting these diseases by educating the people, screening the carriers and counselling them. That, to me, is very satisfying,” she says.
Dr Shaikha is a commanding personality who gives one the distinct impression that her time is not to be wasted.
As she talks about her family and especially her upbringing, it’s clear that she has modelled her life on her father’s. Born into a family of pearl merchants, the late Mr Salim Al Arrayed had set his eyes on an education that would take him to India, where he earned his degree in law in 1919. Back in Bahrain in the 1930s, Mr Al Arrayed took up a role as an educator and became headmaster of the first school in Manama. In addition to running the family business, he later started a legal practice. His passion for education undiminished, Mr Al Arrayed ensured that all his children got the best education and excelled in their chosen fields.
“When our father sent my sisters abroad to college in the 1950s, he was one of the first in Bahrain to be sending his daughters overseas for studies. He was a forward thinking man, much ahead of his time and exhorted us to do the best in our fields,”notes Dr Shaikha. In a family packed with professionals, two of her sisters are educators, another two are lawyers while a further sibling has taken up medicine. “We have more than 20 doctors in the family,” she laughs. It was then, no surprise that she decided to take up medicine and earned her medical degree from Cairo University.
Dr Shaikha’s first encounter with genetic disease came while she was at school. “I had a friend who suffered from sickle cell anaemia. Unfortunately, she was married to another carrier. After years of suffering, she died a few years ago,” she reminisces.
Later on, working as a junior doctor posted on emergency duty at Salmaniya Hospital, it was impossible to avoid the plight of sickle cell anaemia patients brought in the midst of a crisis attack.
Dr Shaikha then decided to pursue a master’s degree in human and clinical genetics from the UK and came back in 1984 to set up a genetics clinic at Salmaniya Hospital, where she is now head of the department. Later on, her research led her to a doctorate in genetics from Aberdeen University in 1993. She has headed the National Committee for the Control of Hereditary Diseases in Bahrain since then.
Long considered the most serious of all genetic disorders in the Kingdom, sickle cell anaemia has perhaps been the biggest challenge in the field of public health.
If Bahrain is close to wiping out incidence of sickle cell disease in newborns, it is primarily on account of a slew of programmes launched by the Health Ministry since the 1980s spearheaded by Dr Shaikha. A premarital counselling service was started, informing couples that if both parents had the sickle cell gene, there was a 25 percent chance that their child would also develop the condition. This, along with other initiatives such as health education, screening the population as well as genetic counselling have gradually paid off, she believes.
“We carry out screening of around 6,000 to 7,000 students annually across all schools in Bahrain to identify the carriers while they are young, and educate them about their condition.
This also supports our pre-marital counselling initiative, wherein we advise carriers of this gene to avoid marrying another carrier, which might result in their child developing this condition,” she says.
Having brought the incidence of fresh cases under control, the Health Ministry has now trained its sights towards improving the management and treatment of patients suffering from this condition.
Since August this year, Dr Shaikha has been chairing a Health Ministry initiative to improve services to sickle cell patients. The team is studying each department that deals with sickle cell patients, evaluating its strengths and weaknesses and trying to improve the performance. “Earlier, we had patients waiting for hours in the emergency room for treatment. We’ve now fast-tracked the services for them. We’ve opened clinics for them at Salmaniya and at other health centres,” she notes. A new multi-million dollar haematology centre is coming up at the Salmaniya Hospital next year.
The Kingdom has been at the forefront of the fight against genetic diseases across the region, many believe. Since the 1980s, Bahrain has taken conscious policy decisions to towards monitoring and registration of all genetic diseases and congenital disorders.
After establishing a genetics clinic in Salmaniya Hospital in 1984, Dr Shaikha has headed such endeavours as premarital counselling for couples, screening of newborns, student screening for genetic blood diseases and the Bahrain Birth Defect Register.
In contrast, statistics on genetic diseases are hard to find in the Middle East, despite the high incidence of disorders such as Thalassaemia in Turkey, Cyprus, Iran and sickle cell anaemia in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and the UAE.
“We have been the pioneers across the region in addressing the challenge of genetic blood diseases. In Bahrain, our interventions were initiated way back in the 1980s, whereas others have followed suit only after 2000. We’re in regular touch with the WHO, which looks at Bahrain as an ideal for others to follow,” she notes.
Their regard of both Bahrain as well as Dr Shaikha is evident from the fact that she was recently awarded the State of Kuwait Prize for Research in Health Promotion by the world body.
Dr Shaikha has also been member of the WHO Expert Advisory Panel on Human Genetics since 2002 and chairperson of the Bahrain National Hereditary Anaemia Society since 1999.
In 2004, she became one of the first women to be awarded the First Class Kingdom Competence Order from His Majesty King Hamad. She was one of four Bahraini women to be nominated by the Supreme Council for Women for the 2008 Nobel Prize. Coming from a family of achievers, she is a staunch advocate for women’s education and rights.
“It’s important that we support women in our country and educate them, as everyone has the potential to excel and serve their country. The Arab region and Islamic countries cannot develop sufficiently if half their manpower is suppressed and inactive,” she feels. As for her work, Dr Shaikha hopes that in about five to 10 years’ time, Bahrain will be able to rid sickle cell anaemia entirely. Many more accolades will come pouring in, when that happens.