An upward spiral to success

Every year for the past nine years, the RBC Royal Bank and the Canadian Immigrant magazine co-present the Top 25 Canadian Immigrants awards. The awards celebrate the achievements of Canadian newcomers and their contribution to Canadian society. For Dr. Muhammad Morshed, Program Head of Zoonotic Diseases & Emerging Pathogens at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), the award is a recognition of both his scientific work and of the value of resiliency.

I came to this country for a better life,” says Bangladeshi-born Dr. Morshed.

Arriving in Canada with his wife and young daughter in 1996, he discovered that the road to a better life is winding. Already an associate professor at a national university with publications in top journals like The Lancet, Dr. Morshed was established in his field.

“I was kind of over-confident,” he confides. “I thought that I’d be given 10 jobs!”

Dr. Morshed approached many universities in B.C. but found it difficult to even get an interview. He recalls taking the bus from Coquitlam, where he was living at the time, to UBC to talk to the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. He made the trip daily, each time told to return the following day. At the time, the roundtrip bus fare cost $2.50 and every dollar meant a lot to him. On the third day, the chairperson of the department took him to his office for a talk, explaining that, unfortunately, the timing was wrong. Canada was in the tail-end of an economic slump in 1996; there was little funding and jobs were scarce.

With money running out, Dr. Morshed made the difficult decision to accept a position in Japan funded by the prestigious Japan Society for the Promotion of Science scholarship.

“I had to leave my daughter and my wife and go to Japan by myself,” he says. “They didn’t know anybody in Canada.”

During his three months away, he spent two to three phone cards daily calling home. Fortunately, he found a position at the BCCDC soon afterwards and has been working there since.

Disease detection and prevention

Dr. Morshed specializes in spiral bacteria, among which Borrelia burgdorferi and Treponema pallidum are two variants that cause the well-known Lyme disease and syphilis respectively. Both diseases are found in B.C. and benefit from early detection when antibiotics are the most effective. Late treatment leads to irreversible and debilitating damage.

Dr. Muhammad Morshed, 2017 RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Award recipient. | Photo by Betty Shea

Syphilis is a particular area of concern for Dr. Morshed and his team.

“When I started back in 1996, we had about 40 to 50 cases per year [in B.C.],” he says. “Now, we have 700 to 800 cases yearly.”

While the reasons for the increase are complex, he believes that diagnostic delays are part of the puzzle. Syphilis is diagnosed through measuring the level of antigen antibodies within the patient, which take between seven to 14 days to develop.

“So by the time we diagnose the patient, it is too late because they could have already transmitted the disease to somebody else,” he explains.

Dr. Morshed and his team are in the first stages of developing a swab that detects syphilis through molecular methods. If successful, diagnosis would occur seven to 10 days earlier than current means.

Besides research, Dr. Morshed also runs the lab that provides diagnostic services of any new zoonotic diseases for the province of BC. There is never an idle moment.

“I dealt with the West Nile virus when it came. Now I’m dealing with the Zika virus,” he says. “I’ve been here for 20 years and each year I encounter a new virus.”

Resiliency and retraining

Dr. Morshed’s message to newcomers is to be persistent and to seek retraining upon arrival to Canada.

“Canada has lots of opportunities for education,” he says. “There are scholarships and there is support for their family.”

One objection he hears is that retraining takes too much time, but he maintains that having the right training opens doors to rewarding employment.

“It may take two years, but two years is a blink of an eye,” Dr. Morshed says. “So do not derail. Be persistent, be resilient, get educated and get into society.”