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May 27, 2003

Dean Sommer Receives Warren Alpert Foundation Scientific Prize

Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS, dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was honored today with the fifteenth annual Warren Alpert Foundation Scientific Prize for his pioneering work that showed that four-cent vitamin A capsules can prevent the deaths of millions of lives and blindness in the developing world. The ceremony to bestow the $150,000 prize was held at Boston’s Four Seasons Hotel.

In the early 1980s, Dr. Sommer, an ophthalmologist and epidemiologist by training, was searching for ways to prevent xerophthalmia, or childhood blindness, in Indonesian children. While treating children with capsules of vitamin A - vitamin A deficiency was a known cause of the disease - Dr. Sommer recognized a startling trend: children in the trial who received Vitamin A, in addition to retaining their vision, were dying at much lower rates than children who were receiving a placebo.

Dr. Sommer went on to replicate this work in Nepal and Africa, proving the trend in different countries and showing that even mild vitamin A deficiency dramatically increases childhood mortality rates, primarily because this deficiency reduces resistance to infectious diseases such as measles and diarrhea.

Moving from science to practice, Dr. Sommer next showed that the debilitating consequences of vitamin A deficiency could be effectively, quickly, and cheaply treated with oral high-dose vitamin A supplementation. In 1995, a United Nations Children’s Fund report estimated that 1 million to 3 million lives could be saved annually if young children in the Third World took a vitamin A pill two or three times a year. The annual cost per child: 4 to 6 cents.

As a result, the World Development Report (World Bank) declared vitamin A supplementation one of the most cost-effective of all health interventions. The latest research by Dr. Sommer and his colleagues has shown that supplementing women of childbearing age with vitamin A or beta-carotene can reduce maternal mortality by an average of 45 percent. These dramatic results are now being tested in a new, large, randomized, controlled, field trial in Bangladesh, where the potential benefits of simultaneous supplementation with other micronutrients (zinc, folate, iron and B-complex) are being determined.

Harvard Medical School’s complete press release can be viewed by visiting

Public Affairs Media Contact for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Kenna Brigham at 410-955-6878 or

Photographs of Alfred Sommer are available upon request.

Public Affairs Media Contact for Harvard Medical School: John Lacey at 617-432-0442 or
Public Affairs Media Contact for the Alpert Foundation: Wendy Spivak at 617-227-0012, ext. 225 or