Five Medical Discoveries Jamaica Has Shared With The World

My island home of Jamaica ranks #155 on this list of countries compared by size in square miles, yet has managed to have an indelible global impact. In Jamaica, we say “wi likkle but we tallawah.” This means that we’re small in size but pack a punch, and that we do! Jamaica dominates in athletics, having produced the world’s fastest man and woman alive. Jamaica has produced one religion, four Miss World pageant winners, six genres of music and some of the world’s most highly sought after coffee beans. This tiny island has also had a major impact on the United Nations, most notably in matters of human rights, gender equality, the struggle against Apartheid, economics, the environment and combating the illegal drug trade. However, what’s not so well known is that Jamaican doctors and scientists have also made global contributions to the practice of medicine. In this article, I’ll share five Jamaican contributions to science and medicine.


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1. Sickle Cell Disease

The Sickle Cell Unit in Kingston. Source: National Health Fund

Sickle cell is an inherited disease in which red blood cells have an abnormal shape when exposed to triggers such as cold weather, infection, dehydration and even emotional stress. These sickle or banana shaped cells may block blood vessels and cause issues ranging from severe pain to strokes, pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs) and even death. One in every ten Jamaicans carry the sickle trait, and roughly one in every 400 Jamaicans have sickle cell disease. Many of these patients make frequent visits to the emergency room and represent a major chronic illness burden in the Jamaican population.

However, Jamaica has used this opportunity to carry out pioneering research in how to manage these patients. We have developed our own treatment guidelines for managing sickle cell disease which has been adopted in other jurisdictions. The Sickle Cell Unit in Jamaica is the only comprehensive sickle cell centre in the English speaking Caribbean. Its core functions revolve around healthcare, education and research. Some 3,000 patients visit the Sickle Cell Unit annually– both for routine well visits and emergency care.


2. Kwashiorkor

Dr. Cicely Williams. Source: Hektoen International

Dr. Cicely Williams was a Jamaican physician known for her advocacy and research in child and maternal health. She was born and raised in Jamaica but migrated to England at age 13 to further her studies. Dr. Williams was one of the first female graduates of Oxford University. Her studies were made possible due to the shortage of male medical students who were drafted to fight in World War I. Williams believed that in order to be an effective physician, one must take a child’s home environment and background into account, which went on to shape her medical practice. Williams had difficulty securing a job due to gender biases, but was later posted to the Gold Coast (present day Ghana). While there, she discovered that kwashiorkor was caused by protein deficiency which developed after babies were weaned from breastmilk. These findings were published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood in 1933.

Williams went on to campaign against the use of sweetened condensed milk and other artificial milks as human breast milk substitutes while stationed in Malaysia. In 1948, she became the first director of Mother and Child Health at the newly created World Health Organization (WHO). Williams also spearheaded the 1950s research into “Jamaican vomiting sickness” which led to the identification of the hypoglycemic toxin found in ackee, Jamaica’s national fruit. This illustrious Jamaican female physician contributed significantly to the practice of medicine and has been well recognized globally for her efforts.


3. Medical Marijuana in Jamaica

Dr. Henry Lowe. Source: Caribbean National Weekly

Cannabis (or marijuana) was brought to Jamaica by East Indian indentured servants in the 1800s. The herb had long been used in eastern religions, but has been adapted by Rastafarians in Jamaica as part of their religious sacraments to aid in meditation. Cannabis gets a bad rap for its psychoactive properties due to the compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is abused recreationally. However, the plant contains over 400 compounds, many of which have medicinal properties.

Dr. Henry Lowe, a Jamaican scientist, has been researching the medicinal properties of cannabis since 1972. Lowe and associates have demonstrated the benefit of cannabis flavonoids in combating diseases during experiments, such as hepatitis C. Flavocure Biotech, a cannabis research company that is majority-owned by Dr. Lowe, has received approval from the US Patent Office for a drug that treats glaucoma and nearsightedness. This is building on work from predecessors Professor Manley West and Dr. Albert Lockhart, two Jamaican scientists who developed the cannabis-based glaucoma treatments of Canasol and Cantimol.


4. HTLV Research

Professor Barrie Hanchard was a Jamaican pathologist who dedicated two decades of his life to HTLV-1 research. HTLV is a virus which is similar in structure to HIV and is also transmitted sexually, via infected blood products or vertically (mother to child). The virus is endemic in many countries, including Jamaica where the prevalence is relatively high. HTLV is often an incidental finding, but can go on to cause long term complications such as an aggressive leukemia, chronic skin rash and paralysis. Through Hanchard’s study of diseases caused by HTLV, previously unknown associations between this virus and certain diseases were identified. Additionally, his research led the Jamaican Ministry of Health to institute the testing of donated blood for HTLV in order to prevent its spread through transfusions. The late Professor went on to train hundreds of medical students each year in pathology, and has written a chapter in one of the world’s most widely used pathology textbooks– The Pathological Basis of Disease. I’m deeply humbled to have been taught by Professor Hanchard during medical school.


5. An Exemplary Vaccination Programme

Jamaica’s vaccination programme was launched in 1978 with the goal of achieving 95% or more national vaccine coverage. This is enforced by law as the public health act makes it a criminal offense for schools and day care centres to accept children without proof of up-to-date vaccination, unless there is a valid reason for exemption. Due to the strength of Jamaica’s immunization programme, the island successfully eliminated poliomyelitis in 1982, measles in 1991, rubella in 2000 and the last case of congenital rubella syndrome was recorded in 1998. Jamaica offers mandatory vaccines for 9 diseases, including measles, mumps, rubella, tuberculosis (BCG), diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, hepatitis B and haemophilus influenzae (HiB), while a HPV vaccine is now available for 11 and 12 year old girls to prevent cervical cancer. These vaccines are issued free of charge in the public clinics within all communities, and record is kept via a special vaccination card called the Child Health Passport which is issued at birth. Jamaica has been lauded by the WHO for its achievements in immunization and delivery of public health.


Wrap Up

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about Jamaica’s scientific and medical achievements. I highlight Jamaica in a positive way on my blog to rewrite the negative message which our media often portrays to the world about the island. We have our fair share of issues, but there’s nothing wrong with Jamaica that cannot be fixed with what is right with Jamaica. Share this post with a friend, and subscribe for new posts.

‘Til next time.

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Published by

Rochelle | Adventuresfromelle

Adventures from Elle is a travel blog for locals & visitors who want to experience the best of Jamaica, one adventure at a time. The blog is curated by Rochelle Knight, a junior resident (M.D.) in internal medicine and published author. She began the blog in 2016 as a medical student & wants to see the world, starting with her home country. Purchase her book 'SIGHTSEE JAMAICA' on Amazon and join her in Jamaica!

36 thoughts on “Five Medical Discoveries Jamaica Has Shared With The World

  1. Great article Rochelle. I can attest to the pioneering work and research done in the management of Sickle Cell Disease. Thanks to Professor Graham Sergeant and many others at the Sickle Cell Clinic over many decades, myself and others have been able to live well past the usual life expectancy and overcome health challenges. Simple monitoring and treatment techniques that have been taught to parents, families, and caregivers have helped to save the lives of thousands of persons living with sickle cell. We are still faced with stigma and discrimination (unfortunately even by some health care workers), but thankful for persons like YOU 🙂 who use your platforms to help spread awareness about the disease.

    I’m just learning about Dr. Williams, and I never heard about HTLV until now…. very interesting.

    Thanks again, continue the great work, and be blessed 💛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It took hours of research but was loads of fun to do 🙂 Me too, I don’t smoke and I wouldn’t recommend that as a way in which to consume weed– especially given its hallucinogenic properties. However, it has loads of benefits and I think we are just scratching the iceberg. We even use CBD oil in neurology clinic for seizures and to prevent spasticity (stiff joints e.g. cerebral palsy babies). Marijuana is a wonder herb- which reminds me. I will do a separate article on it soon 🙂 thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha yup. I hadn’t heard about it until medical school but it’s very common in Jamaica. Most people only find out they have it if they donate blood which is found to be infected, or if they develop the complications like paralysis or cancer. There’s nothing much to be done about it if infected so I guess that’s why it’s not really publicized like it’s cousin, HIV

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I agree! It’s likely just as similar in the USA where people only hear about it if they test positive after blood donation. It’s not a routinely done test, not even for pregnant women who routinely get syphilis, hepatitis and HIV testing upon booking at a clinic in Jamaica


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