Behind every public health achievement are extraordinary scientists, researchers and advocates. For the past 21 years at the Sabin Vaccine Institute (Sabin), we have honored these distinguished leaders through the Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal Award. From advances in chickenpox, meningitis, HPV, smallpox and rotavirus, to measles, rubella and polio, the Gold Medal winners have made forward-thinking, life-saving contributions in many disease areas.
In a meaningful ceremony held last week, we presented the 2014 Gold Medal Award to Dr. Mathuram Santosham for his pioneering role in the prevention of deadly H. influenzae type b (Hib) diseases, including pediatric bacterial meningitis and pneumonia. Dr. Santosham is a Professor of International Health and Pediatrics, and the Founder and Director of the Center for American Indian Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
We were excited to be joined by Dr. Santosham’s colleagues, friends, and family, as well as five previous Gold Medal Winners: Drs. Mike Levine (’98), Philip Russell (’99), John Schiller (’11), Douglas Lowy (’11) and Marc LaForce (’12).
Kicking off the ceremony, Sabin President Dr. Peter Hotez welcomed guests, shared how Dr. Santosham inspired his career in vaccinology, and honored the legacy of former Gold Medal winner Dr. Albert Kapikian, who passed this year.
Dr. Katherine O’Brien, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, then told the story of Dr. Santosham’s life and work in a moving and funny presentation that captured him as a scientist and public health advocate of course, but also as a dedicated father, husband, friend and mentor.
Before Dr. Santosham’s “accomplishments, [which were] really quite wide-ranging,” including innovations in rotavirus, pneumococcal, neonatal interventions, oral-rehydration solution (ORS) use and reduction of health disparities among Native American populations, Dr. Santosham grew up in India. There, he was told to be a carpenter or auto mechanic, “but his aspiration was to become a doctor.” Motivated by seeing children dying on a daily basis in India, Dr. Santosham went to medical school in India, but was confronted with a lack of residency options in the country. That’s when he went to Baltimore, where he “bumped up against prejudices” – but overcame them.
“His commitment to communities is something that goes without saying,” said Dr. O’Brien. When presenting the award, she added, “You inspire us all to higher levels. … [You have shown us] that with insistence, faith and commitment, we can make this world a better place!”
After accepting the award, Dr. Santosham shared the journey of how he helped lead hib vaccine development, advocacy and adoption by countries worldwide. While working with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, Dr. Santosham saw kids dying from a diarrheal disease epidemic. “The tragedy was that people weren’t using ORS in that situation,” he said. That gave him the opportunity to demonstrate that ORS was effective. Dr. Santosham then conducted a hib vaccine trial on the Navajo reservation. Along with other doctors, he helped get permissions, hired and trained more than 60 people in a six month period, and established tracking system.
What’s amazing, Dr. Santosham explained, is that in the year 2000, South Africa was the only country in the world using the hib vaccine, but by 2010, 90 percent of countries had adopted the hib vaccine or committed to its use. But, “it was always my passion to get these vaccines in India,” Dr. Santosham commented. Putting aside its resistance, India has declared that by 2015, the entire country will receive the hib vaccine. “We are at a stage [where] we can pretty much eliminate this disease,” he told us. Advocacy, stakeholder meetings and coordination helped make this possible in India and around the world, and it was in no small part led by Dr. Santosham.
In closing, and mentioning Sabin’s Executive Vice President Dr. Ciro de Quadros’ vision and work to eradicate polio in the 80s, Dr. Santosham urged young public health professionals to “make sure you aim high. Don’t be afraid to dream that impossible dream.”
Congratulations again, Dr. Santosham!