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May 3, 2005

Alfred Sommer Awarded Helen Keller Prize

Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS, dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is this year’s recipient of the prestigious Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research. Awarded annually by the Helen Keller Foundation for Research and Education, the prize recognizes scientists whose research has made a significant contribution to blindness prevention. Dr. Sommer was the first to determine that vitamin A deficiency, a common cause of blindness in the developing world, also contributed to childhood mortality. His groundbreaking discoveries led to the widespread use of inexpensive vitamin A supplements that reduced childhood mortality by 34 percent in the developing world and saved the lives of millions of children worldwide. The World Bank now ranks vitamin A supplementation among the most cost-effective health interventions in all of medicine.

Dr. Sommer was presented with the Helen Keller Prize on May 2, 2005, at the annual conference of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “The life of Helen Keller was always an inspiration for me personally. It is a great honor to receive this award,” said Dr. Sommer.

Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS

Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS

While working in Indonesia during the 1970s, Dr. Sommer discovered that mild vitamin A deficiency, which causes the progressive eye disorders xerophthalmia and keratomalacia, also dramatically increased childhood morbidity and mortality from infectious diseases, particularly measles and diarrhea. He also discovered that vitamin A supplementation in children in the developing world reduced measles fatalities by 50 percent and overall childhood mortality by one-third. Despite widespread criticism of his discoveries from the scientific community, Dr. Sommer continued to research his theories and later documented that a large oral dose of vitamin A, costing a few pennies, was a more effective and affordable means of treating vitamin A deficiency than injections. Today the oral dose is the recommended standard of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the control of vitamin A deficiency is included in the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of Children.

UNICEF and WHO estimate that more than one million children would die of infection or become blind each year without vitamin A intervention programs that now operate in more than 60 countries. According to UNICEF estimates, over 400 million capsules of vitamin A were administered to children in 2002, saving the lives of more than 250,000 children worldwide that year alone.

In addition to his vitamin A research, Dr. Sommer was instrumental as a member of the American Academy of Ophthalmology in establishing the first clinical guidelines for practicing ophthalmologists. In 1986, he chaired the initial committee that first developed the practice guidelines, which have since been emulated by other medical professions. Dr. Sommer also conducted some of the first research studies to suggest that blacks were at a much greater risk for glaucoma than whites. He later initiated the Baltimore Eye Survey, which further showed that blacks are at greater risk than whites for blindness from glaucoma and that whites are more likely to suffer from macular degeneration. He also published research that overturned the accepted ophthalmologic practice that evaluating glaucoma risk be purely based on the levels of intraocular pressure.

Dr. Sommer received his medical degree from Harvard University and trained as an ophthalmologist at the Wilmer Eye Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In 1980, he established the Dana Center for Preventive Ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute. He became dean of the School of Public Health in 1990.

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna Lowe at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.