Gates gives Hopkins another $20 million

Latest gift to expand studies of life-saving potential of vitamins

July 25, 2000|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded $20 million yesterday to the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health to expand groundbreaking research into how inexpensive vitamins and minerals can save the lives of malnourished children and women in the Third World.

The five-year grant, the Seattle foundation's latest venture in global health, grew in part from a meeting last fall in Nepal between William H. Gates Sr., father of the Microsoft founder, and Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the public health school.

Sommer, who will be principal investigator on the new grant, discovered in the early 1980s that giving young children in developing countries vitamin A supplements a couple of times a year reduced their death rate by as much as 30 percent.

That finding has led to programs in more than 70 countries to combat vitamin A deficiency, which can cause blindness as well as vulnerability to fatal diseases.

Since then, a team of Hopkins researchers has built on the vitamin A research and extended it to other micronutrients.

A study in Nepal led by nutritionist Keith P. West Jr. found that giving vitamin A to pregnant women reduced their death rate by 40 percent. And zinc supplement trials, including some led by Dr. Robert E. Black, head of international health at Hopkins, have dramatically cut the incidence of both pneumonia and diarrhea, the biggest killers in developing countries.

The new money will accelerate the search for the precise combination of micronutrients that most efficiently protects children and women in impoverished countries, Sommer said yesterday. It will support studies in Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Ghana and Zanzibar.

"I feel terrific about this," he said. "We're at the cutting edge of a lot of important and interesting findings regarding micronutrients, and this money will help us get the answers we need."

Dr. Gordon W. Perkin , director of global health at the Gates Foundation, said micronutrients are one of the most cost-effective ways to improve the health of the world's poorest people.

"It's in terms of pennies, not dollars," he said. "One can have a major impact on health for a very low cost."

Perkin said that in addition to identifying the mix of nutrients with the greatest impact on health, the foundation will sponsor work on how best to deliver them: in vitamin pills, food fortification or dietary changes.

The Gates Foundation gave its first grant to Hopkins in May 1997 - $2.25 million to start a training program on family planning for professionals from Third World countries. It followed up with an additional $20 million in May 1999 to create an institute on population and reproductive health at the public health school.

The new grant is tied for third-largest in Hopkins' history with the Gates grant last year and a 1994 gift by R. Champlin and Debbie Sheridan to the university's Milton S. Eisenhower Library, said Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea.

The biggest gift ever to Hopkins was $100 million starting in 1995 from business information entrepreneur Michael R. Bloomberg, followed by $50 million from the Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Fund in 1992.

The university recently completed a six-year fund-raising drive that raised $1.52 billion.

With an asset base of $21.8 billion, the Gates Foundation has rocketed to the top ranks of foundations worldwide in the last three years. Under the direction of the elder Gates, it has concentrated its giving on the use of computers and the Internet in libraries, scholarships for minority students and health in the developing world.

In October, when Sommer led a group of wealthy supporters of the public health school to Nepal to see the nutrition research underway there, the trip coincided with a visit to the region by Gates Sr. They spent several hours together.

Sommer said Gates came away impressed by the close collaboration of the Hopkins experts with Nepali colleagues, including those running the national vitamin A program.

World health organizations have shown an interest in developing a sort of universal vitamin pill to combat malnutrition in the Third World. But more research is necessary to determine exactly what nutrients work best and how they interact, Sommer said.

"You're talking about kids and women who are massively deficient in all kinds of things," he said.

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