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April 28, 2006

Sommer Receives Spirit of Helen Keller Award

Alfred Sommer & Meryl Streep

Afred Sommer and Meryl Streep

Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS, dean emeritus and professor of epidemiology and international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was awarded the Spirit of Helen Keller Award by Helen Keller International (HKI) for his pioneering research on vitamin A. The award was presented by actress Meryl Streep at the organization’s 90th anniversary celebration on April 27, 2006, at the Waldorf Astoria Starlight Roof in New York.

In 1982, while reviewing data from his study of childhood vision problems in Indonesia, Sommer noticed that children with mild cases of an eye disease called xerophthalmia were also dying at alarming rates. Sommer, an ophthalmologist and epidemiologist, soon proved that vitamin A deficiency dramatically increased childhood morbidity and mortality from infectious disease and that a 4-cent dose of vitamin A not only prevented and cured eye disease but also reduced childhood deaths by 34 percent. Based on Sommer's work, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, HKI and their partners now annually provide more than 600 million vitamin A supplements to children around the world, saving literally hundreds of thousands of lives and half a million children from going blind each year.

Sommer has also led global blindness prevention research, advocacy and programs as the long-time chair of the Research Committee of the International Council of Ophthalmology and as past-chair of WHO’s Blindness Prevention Program Advisory Group.The Spirit of Helen Keller Award is the only award that recognizes outstanding contributions by an individual to the alleviation of blindness and malnourishment on a worldwide basis. It was established in 1959, during Helen Keller’s lifetime.

HKI, with programs in 26 countries around the world, is an international nonprofit organization devoted to fighting and treating preventable blindness and malnutrition. HKI builds local capacity by establishing sustainable programs and provides scientific and technical assistance and data to governments and international, regional, national and local organizations around the world. HKI programs combat malnutrition, cataract, trachoma, river blindness and refractive error. The goal of all HKI programs is to reduce the suffering of those without access to needed health or vision care and, ultimately, to help lift people from poverty.

Among his many honors and awards, Sommer received the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award in 1997. He is a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. He has published 5 books and over 300 scientific articles. In addition, he has chaired scientific and advisory committees of the National Institutes of Health, the WHO, UNICEF, the International Vitamin A Consultative Group, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the World Economic Forum. In February, Sommer received the Jules Gonin Gold Medal from the International Council of Ophthalmology.

At their anniversary celebration, HKI also presented the Helen Keller Global Legacy Award to Sullivan & Cromwell, LLP, and the Helen Keller Global Visionary Award to the H.J. Heinz Company.

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Kenna Lowe or Tim Parsons at 410-955-6878 or Photographs of Alfred Sommer are available upon request.