“My father and I have a lot in common despite the fact that he is in a very different field of medicine. Cardiac surgery and infectious disease medicine are about as far apart as you can get in medicine, but we bond over our belief that access to high-quality treatment is a human right and should not be defined by where you live in the world or your ability to pay,” said Sophie Yacoub, daughter of famous Egyptian heart surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub, in her first interview with the Arab media.
“We share a passion for research and new scientific discoveries that can push medicine forward and impact patients’ lives. We spend hours sharing ideas about our work and recent research studies and have found our specialties are not so very far apart and learning can often go both ways.”
Sophie Yacoub is a consultant physician in infectious diseases and Dengue research group head at the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit (OUCRU) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She is also an associate professor at university of Oxford and holds an honourary consultant appointment at London North West University Healthcare NHS Trust in the UK.
She has clinical experience in a variety of tropical diseases, including Chagas disease, malaria and Dengue, having worked in northern Australia, Kenya, Tanzania and Honduras. Her work has been supported by grants from the Wellcome Trust (a charitable foundation in the UK), NMRC Singapore, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the British Heart Foundation and the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine.
Growing up in London in the house of an Egyptian father and a German mother had a positive effect on Yacoub. The cultural diversity benefited her, and she enjoyed learning about her heritage and being part of different cultures. “As London is such a cultural melting pot, with so many different ethnicities and nationalities, it was not unusual to be part of a multicultural family. I think this diversity is one of the many reasons I loved growing up in London and still think it’s a fantastic global city,” she said.
Her early education prepared Yacoub for her glamourous future. “I grew up in West London and went to a local school. I stayed at the same school from primary through to secondary education, which gave me a lot of stability. The school provided me with a wide breadth of education, especially in science subjects, which was always my passion. My sister went to the same school but was four years ahead of me and was focused on the arts and languages so had very different interests to me. My brother was the eldest sibling and had a passion for aeronautics and went on to be a pilot.”
“I think it was always presumed my brother would follow in my father’s footsteps. But when he chose another field and with my sister focusing on the arts they didn’t think any of us would be a doctor. Everyone was surprised when I decided to study medicine.”
“To test if I really wanted to study medicine for myself and not because I thought my father wanted me to, both my parents tried their best to put me off, but I was resolute. I wanted to be a doctor, and no one was going to change my mind! When I started medical school, I realised that I wanted to work in global health and tropical medicine and was already planning after I qualified to go to work abroad.”
Yacoub saw the success of her father as a pioneering surgeon as inspiring, but she also witnessed firsthand how hard he worked and what he had had to sacrifice. “I did not have a particular interest in cardiology. My interests always lay in infectious diseases and tropical medicine, so I have been able to separate my career path and not be overshadowed by his reputation,” she explained.
“I became a specialist in infectious diseases and general medicine. I chose this specialty for many reasons, first because infectious diseases affect all systems in the body, not just a single organ, and second because infections often affect young people and vulnerable/neglected populations. I was passionate about both clinical medicine, seeing and treating patients, and about academia, doing research to improve patient outcomes or finding a new way to treat diseases.”
Yacoub now works in Vietnam on Dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral infection which has emerged in the last two decades as the most abundant vector-borne viral infection in the world. Over half of the world’s population is now at risk, mainly in tropical and sub-tropical urban settings.
“Huge outbreaks occur in many cities in Asia and South America. and Dengue has been increasingly reported in Africa including Egypt. The primary mosquito vector is called aedes aegypti because the mosquito was originally described in Egypt before being established all around the world mainly through shipping routes,” Yacoub commented.
Dengue was announced as one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019 by the WHO as the disease continues to spread to new areas. There are no effective therapies and only a poorly effective vaccine. Around 100 million symptomatic infections are reported each year, with the majority causing debilitating but self-limiting symptoms of a high fever, muscle aches, headache and rash lasting about seven days.
However, a minority of infections can progress to life-threatening cases with low blood pressure, bleeding, and organ failure. “Severe Dengue is the leading cause of admission to paediatric intensive care in the rainy season in Ho Chi Minh City like in many other cities in Asia,” Yacoub said. “We are also seeing severe cases in adults and older patients. In my research group, we are researching novel ways of monitoring and identifying patients at high risk of progressing to severe disease as well as trialing new therapies for this neglected but globally important viral infection.”
Despite her important new role in Southeast Asia, Yacoub keeps up with her Egyptian roots. “I go to Egypt as often as I can, usually every two or three years, and would love to go more often if I had time. I took my children there a few years ago before the Covid-19 pandemic to see family in Cairo and also to my father’s institute in Aswan, and we all went on Nile cruise, which my daughters loved,” she said.
“They asked why everyone kept coming up to take photographs with their grandad, as up until then they had only seen him in the UK or when he came to visit us in Vietnam, and he was just a normal grandad to them. It was nice for them to learn about his work and see how Egyptians appreciate all that he’s doing.”
Remembering her own childhood, she said that “as my father worked all hours of the day and night, my mother was the main parent to look after us. I admired her strength of character and how she treated everyone equally; whether they were royalty or homeless, she would always be herself. Her love of music and opera rubbed off on me, and I have her to thank for achieving all the piano grades with distinction.”
“Both my mother and my father love gardening, which was a shared hobby of theirs. Spending as much time as they could in nature was a grounding for them both and something I am realising is so important for all of us in this hectic world.”
While Yacoub has lived in many parts of the world, London will always be her children’s home. “We all plan to return to the UK in a few years’ time as my daughters would like to go to university there, but I will continue my work in global health,” she said.
She hopes that she has inherited some of her father’s drive and energy, since even at the age of 86 he is still teaching and publishing scientific papers and contributing to the field of global health. “I have been privileged to have a very inspiring person in my life in Magdi Yacoub and to have found my own area of medicine that I am extremely passionate about as well,” his daughter concluded.
*An arabic version of this article appeared in the monthy Al-Shabab magazine.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.