His Research Has Prevented the Death of Millions of Children Worldwide Since 1980s
NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Awards Pollin Prize, the Only International Prize for Pediatric Research
Dec 17, 2004
Honoring his breakthrough research in vitamin A deficiency among children in underdeveloped nations, Dr. Alfred Sommer has been named by NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital as the recipient of the third annual Pollin Prize for Pediatric Research. As a result of his work, vitamin A intervention – one of the most cost-effective means of reducing childhood mortality – has been used to save millions of lives in underdeveloped countries worldwide since the 1980s.
The 2004 Pollin Prize, the sole international award for advances in children's health care, was presented at an awards ceremony today at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. Dr. Sommer is Dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins.
"Dr. Sommer's important discovery represents the true spirit of the Pollin Prize, which recognizes medical research that provides a lasting impact on the health of children," says Dr. Herbert Pardes, president and CEO of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. "It was his particular genius to find a simple solution to spare countless children from misery and death."
Dr. Rudolph Leibel, chairman of the selection panel that coordinates the administration of the Pollin Prize, says, "It is our intent that the Prize both recognizes outstanding and important biomedical research, and encourages others to pursue research that specifically benefits children." Dr. Leibel is co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, chief of the Division of Molecular Genetics, and professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center's College of Physicians and Surgeons. He is attending pediatrician at Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian.
UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate that in the absence of vitamin A intervention programs, more than one million children would die of infection or become blind every year. More than 60 countries now conduct a variety of national vitamin A supplementation programs. UNICEF estimates that over 400 million capsules of vitamin A were administered to children in 2002, saving the lives of more than a quarter of a million children worldwide that year alone. The World Bank has ranked vitamin A supplementation as perhaps the most cost-effective health intervention in all of medicine. The UN's Declaration on the Rights of Children, framed in 1990, included the right to an adequate vitamin A status.
Early in his career, Dr. Sommer, who is also professor of epidemiology and international health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins and professor of ophthalmology at the Wilmer Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, hypothesized that vitamin A deficiency was extremely common among children in the developing world and could be the cause of significant visual impairment and blindness. His studies in Indonesia in the mid 1970s confirmed these suspicions and demonstrated that inexpensive oral treatment was far more practical, and just as effective, in the treatment of vision-threatening corneal ulceration compared to more expensive, less practical sterile injections.
Further research by Dr. Sommer suggested that vitamin A deficiency caused significant childhood suffering long before children showed even the mildest ocular manifestations of deficiency. Children with mild deficiency were at increased risk of death from otherwise relatively mild infections and that the greater the degree of deficiency, the greater the risk of death. Subsequent randomized clinical trials demonstrated that improvement of vitamin A status in young children could reduce overall childhood mortality by 25 percent to 55 percent, primarily by reducing the severity of measles and diarrheal disease.
Other findings pointed to vitamin A's many roles in humans, including its role in mounting an effective immune response, thus explaining its powerful influence on the severity of infectious diseases and related mortality.
At the time, Dr. Sommer's findings were met with skepticism by many experts of child health and survival, who refused to accept that an intervention as simple and as inexpensive as vitamin A could drastically impact mortality caused by the complex interplay of multiple nutrition, infectious disease and child care practices and environments. It was only through repeated trials by many investigators in multiple countries and environments that global consensus was finally reached and vitamin A control activities became a global commitment.
NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital – based in New York City – is the largest not-for-profit, non-sectarian hospital in the country, with 2,397 beds. It provides state-of-the-art inpatient, ambulatory, and preventive care in all areas of medicine at five major centers: NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, Children's Hospital of NewYork-Presbyterian, The Allen Pavilion, and The Westchester Division. One of the largest and most comprehensive health-care institutions in the world, the Hospital is committed to excellence in patient care, research, education, and community service. It consistently ranks as one of the top hospitals in the country in U.S.News & World Report's guide to "America's Best Hospitals," in New York magazine's Best Doctors issue, in Solucient's top 15 major teaching hospitals, and in many other leading surveys. The Hospital has academic affiliations with two of the country's leading medical colleges: Joan and Sanford I. Weill Medical College of Cornell University and Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons.
The NewYork-Presbyterian Healthcare System – which includes acute-care and community hospitals, long-term care facilities, ambulatory sites, and specialty institutes – is committed to providing high-quality, cost-effective, and conveniently accessible care to communities throughout the tri-state metropolitan region. The System serves one in four patients in the New York metropolitan area.
About the Pollin Prize
By recognizing outstanding achievement in pediatric biomedical and public health research, and at the same time fostering the work of young investigators, the Pollin Prize seeks to encourage the best scientific minds to address the issues of children's health and illness worldwide, according to Irene and Abe Pollin, creators of the prize.
The Pollin Prize, created in memory of Linda and Kenneth Pollin and administered by NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, consists of a $100,000 award to the recipients and a $100,000 fellowship stipend to be awarded by the recipients to a young investigator, selected by them, who is working in a related area. The stipend is intended to support a substantial portion of salary and laboratory expenses for two years.
The Pollin family, prominent philanthropists, is perhaps best known as the co-owners of the Washington Wizards basketball team. Irene Pollin, a psychiatric social worker and lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard University, created Medical Crisis Counseling in 1980, which treats patients and families coping with chronic illness, and has written several books and articles on crisis counseling and the emotional management of long-term illness. As president and founder of the Linda and Kenneth Pollin Foundation, she serves on a number of national advisory boards and commissions in the fields of mental health and women's health, and is a co-founder and chairperson of the Sister To Sister – Everyone Has A Heart Foundation, an organization whose aim is to increase women's awareness of heart disease and to provide free cardiac screenings.
The first Pollin Prize was presented by NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in 2002 to four clinician-scientists, honoring their development of oral rehydration therapy, a water-based solution of glucose and salt that prevents and corrects dehydration due to infectious diarrhea.