Doing his bit: Joseph fights the Zika virus

Newly qualified doctor Joseph Masters is in Brazil as part of an EU-funded project conducting research into the Zika virus.

Joseph (OE 2004–2011) recently finished his medical school examinations; his work in Recife, in north-east Brazil, is the final elective placement that he must complete before he graduates.

Recife is at the epicentre of the Zika virus outbreak that hit the headlines in 2016. Joseph is working at Hospital da Resturação, the largest public hospital in the city, with neurologist Dr Lucia Brito.

He explains in his own blog how the virus first grabbed his attention in 2016: “I was captivated by my news feed as I followed the spread of the epidemic. Thousands of mothers, mostly from poor communities and already living challenging lives, suddenly found themselves with the additional burden of having to raise disabled children with limited resources.

""“Above all, I wanted be able to do my bit, however small, to help the families affected by this terrible disease. Throughout medical school, I’ve often felt like a bit of a spare part on the wards, conscious of being there mostly there for my own learning, with limited opportunity to really make a difference to patient care. However, the Zika outbreak presented an opportunity to change this. I felt compelled to move on from being a passive observer and to put my skills and knowledge into action.

“I wanted to experience the excitement of working at the heart of an outbreak of a new infectious disease: the fast-paced research environment, the sense of urgency and the challenges of tackling such an unknown and unpredictable virus. I was excited by the idea of working in a huge international collaboration and being part of something where, for once, the whole world is working together towards a common goal.”

""While the birth defects caused by the virus are well known, the neurological complications it causes in adults have received less publicity. Most commonly, these complications involve a type of paralysis known as Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS).

Since Joseph has always been fascinated by the brain – he plans to train to become a neurologist – he was eager to get involved in this aspect of Zika virus research. “Dr Brito was the first doctor to notice that patients with Zika virus were developing GBS as a complication. The connection between Zika and GBS has since been scientifically proven, but there are still many unanswered questions,” he says.

Joseph is working with a group called ZikaPLAN, which is funded by the EU and links 25 research and public health institutions around the world. He has joined researchers from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ), which functions as Brazil’s main public health institution and the research arm of Brazil’s Ministry of Health, and works closely with researchers from the University of Glasgow, University of Liverpool and the International GBS Outcome Study, which is co-ordinated from Erasmus University, Rotterdam.

""In the few weeks since he arrived in Brazil, he says he has fallen in love with the “enchanting city” of Recife.

In his final year at QE, Joseph was one of the first-ever recipients of a new prize sponsored by Queen’s College, Oxford, which rewarded the best Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), with one awarded for Sciences and the other for Arts & Humanities. Joseph won the Sciences prize for his EPQ on the quest for a malaria vaccine.

He then amassed an impressive collection of accolades during his medical studies at ‘Barts and The London’ (The London School of Medicine and Dentistry), which is the medical school faculty at Queen Mary University of London.

After their first-term examinations, Joseph and his QE contemporary, Priyank Patel, both secured scholarships awarded according to a combination of merit and financial need.  Joseph’s scholarship was The John Abernethy Scholarship, which commemorates the founder of the Barts Medical College, who lived between 1764 and 1831.

""The pair also won merit-based awards from a City of London livery company, The Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers, to support their year intercalating (taking time away from their medical degrees to pursue a separate but related research degree).

And Joseph won the Association of British Neurologists' Intercalated Degree Award – which is awarded to just two medical students nationally – and a merit-based award from the Eleanor Rathbone Charitable Trust, again for his year intercalating.

In 2015, he returned to the School to speak at the 50th anniversary Elizabethan Union Dinner Debate alongside Arjun Sajip (OE 2004–2011). The pair successfully opposed the motion This House Believes that prosperity is the best measure of success.