Sommer, former Hopkins dean, to accept prize in Israel

Scientists recognized for research on role of vitamin A deficiency in child mortality, blindness

June 07, 2013|By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

Alfred Sommer, a former Johns Hopkins University dean who discovered the importance of vitamin A in preventing child blindness, will accept an award Sunday in Israel honoring his contributions to preventive medicine.

Sommer was chosen as a laureate of the Dan David Prize, bestowed in various fields by Tel Aviv University. He shares the $1 million prize with Esther Duflo, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist being honored for her work on poverty.

The Dan David Foundation awards three prizes each year — one for achievements focused on the past, one for the present, and one, as in Sommer's case, for the future.

In announcing the prize, Joseph Klafter, president of Tel Aviv University and chairman of the prize board, called Sommer's work an "unexpected and striking discovery in demonstrating that vitamin A has the power to save children's lives."

Sommer said in an interview that he plans to speak on the importance of research to prevent disease, rather than treat or cure it.

"The problem with preventative medicine getting any attention and appropriate support is that when you are successful, nothing happens," Sommer said. "It's the opposite of clinical medicine, where you're responding to something where you're grateful you didn't die."

Sommer, a professor of epidemiology, international health and ophthalmology, became well known in the public health realm after conducting trials in Indonesia in the 1970s that showed that even mild vitamin A deficiencies in children could increase child mortality rates and cause blindness. His work is estimated to have saved 10 million children from blindness or death. He later was dean of Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health from 1990 to 2005.

Sommer will give a short speech in accepting the award and will give a lecture to other scientists Monday on a need for a deeper focus on prevention in public health research. Most life expectancy gains can be accomplished with better nutrition, housing, sanitation, child labor laws and smoking-cessation programs, he said.

He plans to donate 10 percent of his prize money to the Dan David Foundation, which awards scholarships to medical students around the world, and much of it to other institutions, he said.

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