Alfred Sommer awarded prestigious Pollin Prize

December 17, 2004

Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS, dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is this year's recipient of the prestigious Pollin Prize for Pediatric Research. Dr. Sommer's groundbreaking discoveries led to the widespread use of inexpensive vitamin A supplements that reduced childhood mortality by 34 percent in the developing world, saving millions of children's lives. The World Bank ranked vitamin A supplementation among the most cost-effective health intervention in all of medicine. Dr. Sommer will be presented with the Pollin Prize at a reception at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City on December 17, 2004.

The Pollin Prize, which recognizes outstanding achievement in pediatric research, includes a $100,000 research award for the honoree and a $100,000 fellowship stipend awarded by the recipient to a young investigator working in a related area. Dr. Sommer selected Parul Christian, DrPH, an associate professor with the Bloomberg School's Department of International Health and Center for Human Nutrition. For the past decade, Dr. Christian has explored new links between the nutritional deficiencies of mothers and increased infant mortality in the developing world. Recently, she has been working in Bangladesh and Nepal on studies examining the improvements in infant survival with maternal vitamin A and beta-carotene supplementation and maternal supplementation of multiple micronutrients.

"It is a great honor to receive the Pollin Prize and to be recognized for my role in improving the health of children. However, there is much more to be done," said Dr. Sommer. "More than 10 million children die worldwide each year and the underlying cause of many of these deaths is malnutrition. I applaud efforts like the Pollin Prize that assist and encourage a new generation of researchers, like Parul Christian, to pursue the important discoveries that will continue to save the lives of millions of children around the world."

"When I see a baby born in Nepal weighing barely three pounds in settings where it is impossible to survive, I feel very sad. It's unfair that in huge parts of the world so many women and children are dying because of malnutrition," explained Dr. Christian. "I hope that what I'm doing will help them in the future."

While working in Indonesia during the 1970s, Dr. Sommer discovered that mild vitamin A deficiency, which causes the progressive eye disorders xerophthalmia and keratomalacia, also dramatically increased childhood morbidity and mortality from infectious diseases, particularly measles and diarrhea. He also discovered that vitamin A supplementation in children in the developing world reduced measles fatalities by 50 percent and overall childhood mortality by one-third. Despite widespread criticism of his discoveries from the scientific community, Dr. Sommer continued to research his theories and later documented that a large oral dose of vitamin A, costing a few pennies, was a more effective and affordable means of treating vitamin A deficiency than injections. Today the oral dose is the recommended standard of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the control of vitamin A deficiency is included in the United Nations' Declaration of the Rights of Children.

UNICEF and the WHO estimate that more than one million children would die of infection or become blind each year without vitamin A intervention programs that now operate in more than 60 countries. According to UNICEF, over 400 million capsules of vitamin A were administered to children in 2002, saving the lives of more than 250,000 children worldwide that year alone.

Dr. Sommer is the first individual researcher to receive the Pollin Prize. Previously, the award has gone to teams of researchers. Nathaniel F. Pierce, MD, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was a co-recipient of the Pollin Prize in 2002 for his work on the development of oral rehydration therapy.

The Pollin Prize is the only international award honoring advances in children's health care. Established by philanthropists Irene and Abe Pollin, co-owners of the Washington Wizards basketball team, the award is designed to encourage young investigators to continue to address children's health issues worldwide. The award is administered by New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
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