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Week of March 8, 2010

Public health hero Sommer to receive Francis medal

The university will award the Thomas Francis Jr. Medal in Global Public Health to Alfred Sommer, whose research into vitamin A deficiency has saved millions of children from blindness and death.

Sommer is a professor of epidemiology, international health and ophthalmology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Vitamin A supplementation is known to be one of the most cost-effective of all health interventions.

“Alfred Sommer’s work has improved the lives of millions of people worldwide, and his commitment to public health is an exceptional display of research, science and compassion. We are delighted to present him with the Francis Medal,” President Mary Sue Coleman says.

The Francis medal recipient is chosen based on major scientific contributions or inventions, public health policy leadership or other service that advances the world public health. Like Francis, Sommer’s pioneering research has changed the lives of millions of people.

The medal will be awarded during a ceremony from 2-4 p.m. Nov. 4, and is one of the highest honors bestowed by U-M. It is named for Dr. Thomas Francis Jr., one of U-M’s most distinguished scientists and public health heroes. Francis, a physician and epidemiologist at U-M, designed and led the massive Salk polio vaccine field trial involving 1.8 million children that led to his announcement from Rackham Auditorium on April 12, 1955 that the Salk vaccine was safe and effective. The vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh, who had studied under Francis.

Sommer is emeritus dean for the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and has published five books and more than 250 scientific articles. He’s received dozens of top honors, including the Lasker Award for Medical Research, and was the first recipient of the GVF prize of the German Association of Applied Vitamin Research.

His initial vitamin A work occurred from 1976-80, when Sommer conducted a series of studies in Indonesia that suggested vitamin A deficiency was more common than previously recognized, and that even mild vitamin A deficiency dramatically increased childhood mortality rates.

Parallel studies Sommer organized with colleagues in Africa showed that most cases of measles-associated pediatric blindness, and half of all deaths, were also related to low vitamin A levels and could be prevented by timely administration of vitamin A to all cases of severe measles. Next, Sommer and his colleagues ran large-scale randomized trials from 1983-92 and demonstrated the link between even mild vitamin A deficiency and pediatric mortality.

Sommer and colleagues next showed oral high-dose vitamin A supplementation could quickly and cheaply treat the devastating effects of vitamin A deficiency. Subsequently, the World Development Report (World Bank) declared vitamin A supplementation one of the most cost-effective of all health interventions.

The latest research by Sommer and his colleagues has shown that supplementing Nepalese women of childbearing age with vitamin A or beta-carotene can reduce maternal mortality by an average of 45 percent, and newborn vitamin A supplementation can reduce neonatal mortality by 20 percent.

Coincidentally, the Thomas Francis Jr. Medal ceremony occurs the same fall as the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s announcement of the idea for the Peace Corps on the steps of the Michigan Union. U-M will celebrate this anniversary with a series of campus events. Sommer has a strong connection and loyalty to the Peace Corps. While still in medical school he and his wife signed up for and were accepted for Peace Corps service, but a position at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta became available, and Sommer accepted an assignment to the Cholera Research Laboratory (now ICDDRB) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he conducted groundbreaking epidemiologic investigations into cholera, smallpox and provision of disaster assistance.

Sommer credits the Peace Corps for fueling his initial desire to work overseas in a public health capacity. Today, Peace Corps volunteers are involved in the administration of vitamin A to children in countries around the world, and Sommer said he often gets emails from Peace Corps volunteers worldwide with questions about vitamin A supplementation.

The first Thomas Francis Jr. Medal in Global Public Health was awarded in 2005 to William Foege, who played a key role in a pioneering strategy to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. This year’s ceremony honoring Sommer will take place at the Blau Auditorium in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

The event is sponsored by the President’s Office, the Center for Global Health and School of Public Health.

 

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