The father of diabetesportalen.se retires
“It feels strange, good in one way, but it’s difficult to stop doing something that you have been involved in for so long”, he says.
Tord Ajanki initially trained as a nurse.
“My wife and I wanted to save the world! We were going to do the training and work abroad as aid workers, and at that time being a nurse was a very good job.”
They spent two years as aid workers in Bolivia. During that period he became seriously ill with typhoid, but also wrote articles, including one about the thin air in the Andes that made it hard to breathe. A journalist friend in Sweden sold the article on his behalf for a considerable fee.
“Then I thought I would perhaps become a journalist instead!”
And so he did. After several years as a substitute on newspapers such as Arbetet in Malmö, and Skånska Dagbladet, and the news agency TT, he decided to go freelance.
“I got into the research and science field – it was a good niche”, says Tord Ajanki, who is now an established and well-reputed medical journalist.
Became an author
In addition to all the articles he has written, he is also the author of several books. The first, published in 2000, was “Stories about medicines”.
“I picked out the best stories from medical science and wrote about the discovery of medicines such as penicillin, polio vaccine and insulin from an historical perspective.”
The book, illustrated by an artist, was very successful.
It was followed by “Cures for madness – about schizophrenia”, “Man, God and science” and “The history of diabetes and the discovery of insulin”, which was commissioned by the Swedish Diabetes Association.
“Actually, I was to write about the history of the Diabetes Association, but thought it sounded boring. Who would want to read it? So I suggested writing the history of diabetes instead with a final chapter on the history of the association. Novo Nordisk, Astra Zeneca and Sanofi-Aventis bought an edition and then the Swedish pharmaceuticals retailer Apoteket decided to give a copy to all their 12 000 employees as a Christmas present, so it took off.”
His latest book is about the worst serial killer in Sweden’s history, a man Tord Ajanki worked with as a young nurse’s assistant at a hospital in Malmö. The book was published this spring and is on sale via online bookshops.
A momentous assignment
As a freelance journalist, he wrote extensively about diabetes for the Diabetes Association and the Diabetes magazine.
“I learned a lot from one assignment, which involved interviewing 30 researchers.”
Another assignment, to write a brochure on research carried out at UMAS, (now Skåne University Hospital in Malmö), would have a significant bearing on his future career.
“As part of the assignment I was to interview Professor Leif Groop, so I asked if he had any background material I could read. He sent me an application to start what was to become the successful Lund University Diabetes Centre. The application stated that if they received funding, they would employ a journalist called Tord Ajanki. That’s how I found out they intended to employ me”, he says.
The weeks went by, but nothing happened. Finally, he rang up Leif Groop, and subsequently met him and Professor Erik Renström, who was deputy coordinator of the newly started Lund University Diabetes Centre, LUDC (Leif Groop was the principal coordinator).
“The position didn’t exist then. It was completely new and I became the first information officer, or communication officer, working for a centre at the faculty. It’s more common nowadays. I think it does them credit that they took the initiative to employ me”, says Tord Ajanki.
Portal was launched in 2007
He focused on starting a web portal featuring news and in-depth articles about diabetes and diabetes research. The idea was to publish three news items a week and produce a subscription newsletter. The content was articles and press releases, initially about research at LUDC, but this was soon extended to include other Swedish and international universities.
He began to write articles, and after several months, in April 2007, diabetesportalen.se was launched.
“I had thought that we would perhaps get 8 000 visitors per month. Today we have 45 000-50 000, so it’s gone better than I expected. That’s probably because there are so many people who have diabetes and many relatives are affected. And that it’s a condition you have to take care of yourself.”
Tord Ajanki says he found out that there were people who felt it was wrong to employ him, as it took money away from research. But he has not felt that his work was called into question.
“My understanding is that ‘external engagement’ (communicating and cooperating with wider society) is considered to be important. My bosses have been very open about it being an important task, which they cannot manage themselves, and they acknowledge that they need someone to help them with it.”
‘Don’t believe in MODY’
As editor of the diabetes portal, he has always put the readers’ perspective first – explaining, describing and informing about new findings in an easy to understand way. And when he looks back at what has been the most rewarding aspect of his just over 11 years working on the portal, he says:
“It has been very rewarding to help people who had good reason to believe that they have Maturity Onset Diabetes of the Young (MODY). They had read up on it, but their doctors were totally dismissive and said ‘you have type 2’. And even though the patients persisted and asked to be tested, the doctors said it was unnecessary. So we have helped them and they have found out that they have MODY2, which means they do not need any injections! There have been a few of those cases. The level of ignorance is surprisingly high, even among healthcare professionals. One doctor said to their patient that ‘I don’t believe in MODY’…!”
Breakthroughs in research
When asked about developments in research, he goes quiet for a long while.
“I have lost track of the number of times I have read, heard or written about breakthroughs and that kind of word. There have been very few real breakthroughs”, he says but mentions a study published this spring on a new division of diabetes into five different groups.
“That was a breakthrough – if it’s accepted by the wider world and the knowledge is applied.
But the media like that type of word and he admits that he has been attracted by it sometimes, perhaps because the researcher he talked to was very enthusiastic.
“Many people don’t realise how complicated the research is and the requirements that exist. If a team arrives at a conclusion, carries out experiments and publishes findings, it cannot be considered as the truth until others have repeated the same thing, which is very difficult. About half of all discoveries cannot be repeated, not even by the same research team.”
He says that over time he has become harder to convince.
“There are 300 ways to cure type 1 diabetes in mice – but not one that works for people. The human body is so extremely complicated.”
The real breakthroughs so far have been achieved by industry, he says, and points to Freestyle Libre, a sensor worn on the arm that makes it possible to measure blood sugar without having to prick a finger. Even so, he has been reluctant to write about technology and support aids on diabetesportalen.se.
“I think it is problematic when it concerns companies that make money from what you are writing about. It can easily turn into an advert.”
Tord Ajanki describes his time at LUDC as stimulating.
“There are so many extremely skilled people here with such high levels of knowledge. And they have a perspective on things that I think is important – being sceptical and not just accepting ‘that’s the way it is’.”
Will you miss the job?
“It always feels good when you are going to finish. But it will be nice not having to do all the things that have become routine. And I have not finished altogether, as I will continue to write for diabetesportalen.se on a freelance basis.”
What if ‘The Big Breakthrough’ is made at some point, and you are not able to write about it?
“Well, I would be very sulky!”
By: Sara Liedholm, the diabetes portal’s bonus mother and editor