Dr. Carol Baker, Champion of Maternal and Newborn Health, Awarded 2019 Sabin Gold Medal
“All I ever wanted to do was to help the most vulnerable in our population, babies.”
- Dr. Carol J. Baker
On April 2, 2019, friends, colleagues, experts and advocates gathered in Washington, D.C., to honor Dr. Carol J. Baker, adjunct professor of pediatrics at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, with the 2019 Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal. The evening ceremony at the National Academy of Sciences celebrated Dr. Baker’s extraordinary contributions to immunization, including her commitment to Group B Streptococcus (GBS) research and her advocacy for maternal immunization to protect the health of women and babies.
Every year, the Sabin Vaccine Institute (Sabin) honors an immunization champion with the Sabin Gold Medal. The award commemorates the legacy of Dr. Albert B. Sabin, who developed the oral polio vaccine that made monumental contributions to the near eradication of polio worldwide, then worked tirelessly to ensure the vaccine reached children around the world.
This year, the medal was presented to Dr. Carol Baker for her game-changing discoveries about the relationship between infant GBS disease and maternal immunity, paired with her resolute advocacy of maternal immunization. Carried without symptoms by approximately one in four healthy pregnant women, GBS can cause long-term health problems in babies, such as deafness, blindness or developmental disabilities from meningitis.
Dr. Baker’s research helped shape the 1996 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consensus guidelines for routine GBS screening among pregnant women, initiating a new medical culture in the United States and reducing the rates of early-onset neonatal GBS disease in the country by 80 percent. To this day, Dr. Baker continues to dedicate herself to the ultimate goal of preventing this disease through maternal immunization, with vaccine candidates currently in clinical trials.
In her welcome remarks, Amy Finan, Sabin’s chief executive officer, applauded Dr. Baker’s dedication to ensure that every child everywhere gets a healthy start to life. “Dr. Baker’s groundbreaking research connecting infant group B strep disease with maternal immunity has laid the foundation for researching and developing GBS vaccines. Her life is a testament to the fact that real changes in immunization practices occur when research is paired with dedicated advocacy.”
The Gold Medal was presented by Dr. Morven Edwards, Dr. Baker’s first fellow and long-time friend and colleague, who currently serves as a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. In her remarks, Dr. Edwards highlighted the impact of Dr. Baker’s advocacy since the 1970s, a time when many physicians opposed vaccinating expectant mothers.
“It would take tenacity and purpose to continue over 40 years to promote and advocate for, investigate and provide evidence that maternal immunization can prevent group B strep in infants,” said Dr. Edwards. “At a time when there was a need to do something, when the problem was recognized but the vaccine solution was not a reality, Carol gathered the stakeholders who wanted to prevent group B strep infection. The result was the 1996 [CDC] consensus guidelines."
Alongside GBS vaccine research, Dr. Baker made a mark as an ardent advocate and created a “climate change for maternal immunization,” said Dr. Edwards, culminating in a medical environment where maternal vaccination is considered the new normal. During her tenure as chair of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices from 2009-2012, the Committee extended influenza vaccine recommendations to children six months of age or older as well as pregnant women, and also recommended tetanus-diphtheria-acellular pertussis booster vaccines during pregnancy.
In her acceptance speech, Dr. Baker thanked many influencers in her life, including her parents, friends, mentors and colleagues, for believing in her and leading her down the path she treads today. She spoke about the importance of disappointment and barriers, which ultimately made her stronger.
“Disappointment – that’s an important lesson to learn. Sometimes, you will be disappointed, but not enough to give up,” said Dr. Baker. “This is my favorite quote – the only way to get a thing done is to start to do it, then keep on doing it, and finally you’ll finish it. Thank you family, friends, colleagues and the Sabin Vaccine Institute for making my “flight” possible and for this wonderful honor.”
As for GBS, over four decades of research, advocacy and creative collaboration is paving the way for a vaccine for this disease, with results of the first of the human trials of a hexavalent GBS vaccine candidate from Pfizer to be presented next month.
“All she ever wanted to do was the help the most vulnerable among our population – the babies,” said Dr. Edwards. “Congratulations to Dr. Baker for a lifetime of extraordinary service and for her incredible contributions to help children and vaccinology.”