When Joseph Ioannou was six months old, doctors at Nicosia’s Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics diagnosed him as suffering from spinal muscular atrophy, a disorder that affects motor neurons in the spinal cord and leads to muscle weakness. In a city divided by an invasion that took place almost two decades before his birth, Ioannou was born on the Greek Cypriot side. To the Institute’s doctors, it didn’t matter. “Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have similar diseases,” says Professor Leonidas Phylactou, a geneticist who is the Institute’s chief executive. “It’s part of our mission to treat both communities.”
For 29 years, Ioannou has received that vital care at the Cyprus Institute of Neurology and Genetics, where he sees a neurologist, as well as lung and heart specialists and a nutritionist. He also visits for regular sessions with a physiotherapist. In that time he has completed studies in computer science and founded his own business repairing PCs. Engaged to be married, he dreams of having a family. “If I wasn’t treated at the Institute, I would be in much worse condition,” he says. “With the guidance and follow-up of the Institute, I have a better quality of life. I’m productive. I can have dreams and make plans for my future.”
Ioannou is one of 12 000 patients on the rolls of the Institute, which stands on a hillside in Nicosia, close to the Green Line that divides the island between the area under the control of the Republic of Cyprus and the area occupied by Turkey since 1974. The Institute carries out 40 000 lab tests each year, battling genetic disorders known all around the world, such as muscular sclerosis, as well as some that are particularly prevalent in Cyprus, like the blood disorder thalassemia. Founded in 1990, the Institute is also a centre of research into treatments for these diseases. Most importantly, it’s a life-saver. “At best, life would be very, very difficult for these people without the Institute,” says Phylactou, who is 47. “I dare say that some of them wouldn’t live.”
Prof. Leonidas Phylactou
Beyond health, a social impact
Like many important medical facilities, the Institute’s impact spreads beyond the health of its patients. Its impact on the social and economic life of Cyprus is significant, because it keeps people healthy enough to work, and prevents them becoming a burden on their families and the state. The Institute’s pre-natal testing for thalassemia, for example, has brought the rate of this disease—which was previously quite prevalent in Cyprus—“down close to zero now” in new-born children, says Phylactou.
“If the Institute didn’t exist, many patients would have serious problems dealing with their conditions,” says Ioannou, the long-time patient. “Proper treatment greatly enhances the capabilities of a patient and improves their quality of life. In this way, the Institute has a great social impact on our country.”