Recognising pioneers in global health and tropical medicine

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Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Every year, The Trustees of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, along with some partners, award a number of medals in recognition of excellence to pioneers in global health and tropical medicine.

This year was no exception, with the medal ceremony taking place today at the RSTMH Annual Meeting, on the theme of Planetary Health.

The George Macdonald Medal

For the first time, we have jointly awarded to the George Macdonald Medal to two researchers, Professor Ann Ashworth and Professor Betty Kirkwood.

The triennial award recognises outstanding research leading to improvement of health in the tropics. Dr George Macdonald, Professor of Tropical Hygiene at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Director of the Ross Institute, was one of the world's great authorities of malariology.

Kirkwood commented in The Lancet: “I feel extremely privileged to receive the George Macdonald Medal, and to share this with my dear colleague Ann Ashworth, who influenced my early years at the School and with whom I co-supervised my first PhD student.”

Kirkwood has led many important trials over the last 30 years, tackling key gaps in evidence to enable effective decision making for maternal, newborn and child health policies and programmes. She has made major contributions to our understanding of the epidemiology and control of diarrhoeal diseases and pneumonia, two major killers of young children; the impact of vitamin A supplementation to mothers, newborns or children; using community-based workers to increase access to known effective interventions; and the additional deaths that can be prevented by early initiation as well as exclusive breastfeeding.

Kirkwood has been instrumental in setting the course of maternal and child health research at LSHTM. She established the Maternal & Child Health Epidemiology Unit in 1979, and the Public Health Intervention Research Unit in 2001 and is also one of the founding members of the Maternal, Adolescent, Reproductive and Child Health Centre (MARCH).

She has authored close to 200 academic papers in peer-reviewed journals, which have been cited over 10,000 times and her textbook, Essential Medical Statistics, is one of the most highly recommended texts on statistical methodology.

Also reflecting on her award in The Lancet, Ann Ashworth said: “I am surprised to have been singled out, as alone I would not have been very effective. I really owe it to all the wonderful colleagues I have worked with over many decades, and our collective contribution to improving child health.”

Ashworth is an inspirational researcher, mentor and leader who, through decades of research, developed the international guidelines for the treatment and care of children with severe acute undernutrition.

Undernutrition contributes to 45% of deaths in children under five (approximately 3.1 million deaths annually) and severe acute undernutrition is the major cause of mortality in young children. Her research contributed towards Millennium Development Goal 4 on child mortality and is also critical for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Ashworth’s ground-breaking research published in The Lancet and Nature in 1968 and 1969 on the energy cost of growth in children recovering from severe undernutrition was the first to identify the need for specific phases in re-feeding regimens of undernourished children.

Her “10 Steps to Recovery” continue to form the basis for the treatment guidelines issued by the World Health Organization and are used by aid agencies worldwide. In a paper in the Lancet in 2004, she reported that use of the guidelines reduced case-fatality from 46% to 21%.

Chalmers Medal

The Chalmers Medal was set up in memory of Dr Chalmers, an investigator who took a great interest in supporting the work of younger researchers. With this in mind, the Medal is awarded to researchers in tropical medicine or international health aged 46 or under.

This year’s winner is Professor Azra Ghani from the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Imperial College London. Ghani’s research has had a major impact on our understanding of the role and effectiveness of malaria control strategies which combine multiple interventions. It has therefore been crucial to the development of current global roadmaps for malaria burden reduction and elimination.

Ghani’s unique contribution has been to turn mathematical models of malaria transmission from conceptual frameworks for gaining understanding of the basic transmission dynamics of vector borne diseases into tools to make quantitative predictions of impact of different control strategies. She published the first paper modelling on the feasibility of malaria elimination in Africa.

Ghani’s research on malaria builds on an equally impressive work from her earlier career. For her PhD, she developed the first model of sexually transmitted diseases incorporating the dynamics of sexual contact networks.

She is a role model for early-career scientists and has dedicated much of her time to training and mentoring junior scientists in the field and developing the next generation of modellers.

Emerging Leaders Award

In addition to the George Macdonald and Chalmers Medals, we also gave out the Emerging Leaders Award for the second time. The purpose of this new annual award is to recognise significant contributions in leadership and service, including mentoring and other forms of capacity-building, to the fields of tropical medicine and global health.

This award is established specifically for the benefit of early-career investigators from and based in low and middle-income countries.

The winner is Dr Direk Limmathurotsakul, Head of Microbiology Department and Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Tropical Medicine at Mahidol University in Thailand.

Limmathurotsakul is recognised as a world expert on melioidosis, an infectious disease caused by Burkholderia pseudomallei. He has published more than 100 publications on melioidosis over the past decade and led a series of laboratory and clinical studies demonstrating for the first time that ingestion and inhalation are important infection routes for melioidosis in northeast Thailand.

Limmathurotsakul also developed the first evidence-based guidelines for the prevention of melioidosis for people living in endemic areas and has recently published a landmark melioidosis paper, estimating the global burden of melioidosis, in Nature Microbiology 2016. He mapped all documented human and animal cases, and the presence of environmental B. pseudomallei, and combined this in a formal modelling to estimate the global burden of melioidosis. He estimated there to be 165,000 human melioidosis cases per year worldwide, of which 89,000 die.

Limmathurotsakul is also a lead researcher in antimicrobial resistance in Southeast Asia. His on-going research includes antibiotic use in animals, estimating the burden of antimicrobial-resistant infections in Southeast Asia, and identifying where resources are most needed to fight effectively against antimicrobial resistance in low and middle-income countries.

Congratulations to all the winners. We look forward to collaborating with them more closely in the future.