BRADFORD is at the forefront of research into Covid-19 thanks to the pioneering efforts of Professor John Wright and his team.
By Anila Baig
Health research is not only vital for Bradford’s economy bringing in millions to the city annually and attracting some of the brightest brains to our region, it is instrumental in developing innovative solutions to improve the well-being of all Bradfordians.
Professor John Wright has been a constant figure throughout the pandemic, raising awareness of the coronavirus, highlighting the dangers and warning against complacency.
He is evangelical about health- as you would expect a doctor to be- but his journey to medicine was not born out of any burning desire but quite accidental.
He grew up in Romford, Essex, the son of Irish immigrants.
“I remember the ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No dogs’ types of notices on the doors,” he said.
He was academically gifted and initially thought about studying engineering but changed his mind and ended up studying medicine.
“Medicine was a bit of an accident, I didn’t have a lifelong ambition to become a doctor, it was a purely academic decision.”
Luckily it turned out to be the right one.
“I’m so glad I became a doctor. It has been very fortuitous for me, I have had a great career and it has enabled me to do so many different things.”
He had an offer of a place at Cambridge University but, when he visited, felt that he didn’t fit in so plumped for his second choice, the University of Leeds instead.
“It was my first visit up north and I fell in love with Yorkshire straightaway, I found the place and people very welcoming and I have stayed here ever since and made it my home.”
All his post-graduate training in hospital medicine was in Yorkshire- Leeds, Harrogate and York- then he went to Africa to work in a small mission hospital in Eswatini.
“It was the early 1990s and we were close to the border where there was a civil war taking place and 100,000 refugees in makeshift camps.
“It was incredibly busy but a great opportunity to practice being a good doctor doing every aspect of medicine including brain surgery, orthopaedics, obstetrics and more.”
Despite all the war, famine and disease Prof Wright said he was struck by the strength of community and how people pulled together to support one another.
“I have been reminded of this during the current pandemic when we have not been able to meet each other but have seen such kindness and compassion.”
After three years out in Africa he came back to the UK to study public health and epidemiology and jumped at the chance to work as a consultant at Bradford Royal Infirmary as doctor and an epidemiologist.
“I quickly fell in love with the city. I loved that it was multi-cultural and the hospital was the perfect size- small enough that we knew everyone and large enough that it had all the specialisms. I also felt a natural affinity with the people.”
As well as the warmth and friendliness, another thing he noticed was the high level of ill health particularly when it came to diabetes, heart disease and asthma.
“In 2001 BRI became a teaching hospital and there was an opportunity to develop medical research in the city, in particular to understand the reasons behind the high levels of ill health.”
The landmark study, ‘Born in Bradford’, was conceived in 2006.
“For the first time ever we could look into the root causes of disease, what was it about the environment and upbringing that was causing so much ill health here.”
The study initially relied on the goodwill of parents to be guinea pigs, having their lives documented and followed over the years.
Prof Wright, a father-of-three, said: “Pregnancy is a good time to recruit volunteers because everyone wants a better life for their children. We didn’t have any funding and were bowled over by the generosity of people and how keen they were to get on board.”
The study has now grown to include more than 20,000 families and more than 50,000 are involved making it one of the biggest medical research studies in the world.
“It is very special what we have done together – communities, clinicians and researchers.”
Prof Wright has been asked to consult and establish similar projects all over the world.
“Bradford is leading the way,” Prof Wright said.
“What our research is showing is that health is a very complex issue, there are no quick fixes, we need change on a societal level.”
He cited the statistic that someone in Manningham is more likely to die 10 years before someone from Ilkley.
“Imagine you are on the train going out of Bradford Forster Square, your life expectancy increases by a year for every train station you stop at on your journey to Ilkley.”
The inequality has been evident during the current pandemic with more people from Black and South Asian communities dying of the virus than any other group.
“The ones most suspicious of the vaccine are the groups which need it the most.”
He caught the virus himself just before he was due to get the vaccine describing the illness as very unpleasant.
“I really felt the breathlessness and the tiredness but luckily it was not too bad for me.”
As well as Born in Bradford, Prof Wright established the Bradford Institute for Health Research 15 years ago and the Wolfson Centre for Applied Health Research, working to speed up the translation of medical research into practice and policy.
“Making research real is the aim and this also brings in £14million annually into the city and attracts some of the brightest brains into Bradford from around the world.”
He has been showered with accolades, most recently being awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Bradford for his work in healthcare.
“I am incredibly proud of the team. We started off with just two researchers, now we have 200. That is an incredible achievement.”