Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Friday, November 5, 2010

Francis Medal recipient Sommer called
public health hero

Dr. Alfred Sommer, who saved millions of lives following his research on the effects of vitamin A deficiency, accepted the Thomas Francis, Jr. Medal in Global Public Health from President Mary Sue Coleman on Thursday at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business Blau Auditorium.

Coleman, who was joined in the presentation by Regent Julia Donovan Darlow, said the award was “a powerful tribute to the life-saving work of a man who can truly be called a hero in public health.”

  Dr. Alfred Sommer addresses the audience after receiving the Thomas Francis, Jr. Medal in Global Public Health. (Photo by Martin Vloet, Photo Services)

Sommer, an ophthalmologist, initially set out to study vitamin A deficiency as it related to night blindness among children. “But along the way he had what you heard him call his ‘holy cow!’ moment when he realized the results of that study were telling him something much more important,” Coleman said, referring to a clip in “The A Factor,” a video on Sommer’s work narrated by actress Glenn Close that opened the program.

“His data were telling him that proper doses of vitamin A could save not just the eyesight of these children, it could save their lives,” said Coleman, who called Sommer “perhaps the only ophthalmologist credited with saving millions of lives.”

It was the second-ever presentation of the Thomas Francis, Jr. Medal, one of the highest honors the university can bestow. The medal is named for the founding chair of epidemiology in the School of Public Health (SPH) and director of the U-M Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center, best known for his collaboration with a former student, Dr. Jonas Salk. Francis designed and directed the national field studies of the successful polio vaccine developed by Salk and his team.

“That collaboration led to the April 12, 1955, announcement from Rackham Auditorium, just a short walk from where we are today, that the Salk polio vaccine was safe and effective,” Coleman said. “If you are of a certain age, you well remember the incredible news that there was a vaccine for this devastating disease.”

The inaugural Thomas Francis, Jr. Medal was awarded in 2005, on the 50th anniversary of that historic announcement. It was presented to Dr. William Foege who impacted the field of global public health by battling smallpox while working as a medical missionary in Nigeria in the mid-1960s.

Since the 1980s, this year’s recipient’s focus on vitamin A supplementation has saved lives each year in 70 countries. Coleman said the World Bank has called vitamin A supplements the world’s single most cost-effective health intervention. Sommer subsequently has been honored with some of the most prestigious awards given by the scientific community worldwide, including the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award, the Pollin Prize for Pediatric Research and the Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

“Dr. Sommer continues his research related to vitamin A and other micronutrients as a professor of epidemiology, international health and ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins, where he also is dean emeritus,” Coleman said. “And today, we honor him with the Thomas Francis, Jr. Medal in Global Public Health for his compassion and determination to save and improve the lives of so many.”

In remarks to open the program, SPH Dean Kenneth Warner said of Sommer, “I am one of the many individuals throughout the world who have been inspired by this remarkable man’s work.”

Warner said the medal ceremony calls attention to U-M’s Center for Global Health, which works to address pressing health problems — among them unsafe water, poor sanitation, exposure to insect disease vectors, the burgeoning burden of chronic diseases, a lack of basic medical and preventive services, and more.

“It reminds us that as one of the world’s richest nations, we stand to win far more hearts and minds, and to promote democracy far more effectively, through compassion and generosity than through military might,” Warner said. “And what better way to show our compassion and generosity than by working to improve the world’s health?”

Sommer addressed the audience by taking them through the timeline of the discovery of the importance of vitamin A and the “holy cow moment.” Initially, he said, skeptics argued it was too simple, too inexpensive, or there wasn’t enough proof that vitamin A actually was related to mortality. Undeterred, Sommer’s group kept replicating their results in subsequent trials. By 1991, the group had conducted trials involving 22,000 children, and showed a 35 percent reduction in mortality for the children in the group that received the vitamin A.

Yet even now, despite all the science, there are critics. Sommer said he never wavered because he “believes in data.”

Simply put, vitamin A works because it protects against some of the infectious diseases to which people in developing countries are exposed: namely measles and diarrhea.

After his initial results Sommer was asked to look at what caused blindness after measles in African children. The group conducted a trial by administering vitamin A to a group of children hospitalized for measles, and cut the fatality rate for those hospitalized children in half. In 1992 Sommer and his colleagues published a series of papers on the efficacy of vitamin A that helped to solidify vitamin A as an intervention.

Sofia Merajver, director of the Center for Global Health, told Sommer his work “represents the highest exponent of the intersection between basic and clinical science and public health.”

Merajver said the Center for Global Health similarly is devoted to using science in the service of global health equity. “This work requires adaptations of technologies and frameworks to global locations and the forging of constructive and sustainable partnerships across social, political, academic and health care institutions,” she said.

Anil Deolalikar, co-director of the One Health Center at the University of California Global Health Institute, and Eduardo Villamor, associate professor of environmental health sciences and epidemiology in the School of Public Health, participate in a panel discussion as part of the Francis Medal presentation event. (Photo by Martin Vloet, Photo Services)  

Warner headed a discussion by panelists illustrating their own experiences translating science into public health. The panel convened to elaborate on the concepts of bridging science and global public health: the challenges of economics, social, and environmental factors and partnerships to achieve implementable and sustainable solutions in the world.

Kathy Spahn, president and CEO of Helen Keller International, talked about the science of delivery and the hurdles people like Sommer face in getting the science they’ve developed to people in need. Helen Keller International is a development organization dedicated to the prevention of blindness and malnutrition.

Anil Deolalikar, professor of economics in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, and associate dean of social sciences at the University of California, Riverside, discussed the complexity of the cost-benefit analysis when determining interventions. Deolalikar also is co-director of the One Health Center, located within the University of California Global Health Institute. He said that vitamin A is one of the most cost-effective interventions ever for preventing child morbidity and mortality.

Eduardo Villamor, associate professor of environmental health and epidemiology, discussed the future of vitamin A research, saying that Sommer’s work opened many other avenues for vitamin A research, and that Sommer’s work “personally inspired” his own. Villamor also is a faculty associate and junior faculty awardee of the Center for Global Health.

Merajver closed the presentation by summarizing what she called the two main takeaways. Sommer’s findings show the impact of long-term data and the importance of innovation, she told the packed audience. In Sommer’s case it was “innovation inspired by knowledge.”

After the presentation Sommer stayed behind to chat with students. He said interacting with students is one of the favorite parts of his job, and it shows. He laughed and joked and told war stories about field research while his wife and collaborator, Jill Sommer, looked on and smiled.

Sherry Shen, 19, waited for 20 minutes after the presentation for a chance to ask Sommer about dealing with cultural differences when working in other countries. Shen, a junior studying cellular and molecular biology and Spanish, said she plans to study ophthalmology, and recently developed an interest in global public health after spending the summer in Honduras. She recalls how difficult it was for her to connect with Hondurans even though she speaks Spanish.

“I think it’s amazing that he was able to become as much of the culture that he was able to accomplish what he did,” Shen said, meaning Sommer’s success in getting vitamin A distributed to children and expectant mothers in the countries he served.