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Belgian, Ugandan win Noguchi prize

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Two doctors from Belgium and Uganda were awarded the Hideyo Noguchi Africa Prize on Saturday at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development for their great strides in helping the world combat deadly infectious diseases.

Peter Piot, 64, the Belgian director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, codiscovered the Ebola virus in Zaire in 1976. His subsequent leadership in examining the lethal disease greatly helped improve the global community’s ability to deal with outbreaks of hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola.

In a historic discovery in 1983, Piot, while leading a research team in Africa, detected the presence of HIV transmission among heterosexuals, giving the lie to the traditional assumption that AIDS only affected gay and lesbian people. He is also known for his pioneering research on mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

“I was deeply honored to receive this prize, and also I’d like to appreciate the generosity of the Japanese people (for their) support (of) global health issues, particularly in Africa,” Piot told a news conference Saturday.

While noting that advanced scientific expertise in recent years has brought the world very close to vanquishing HIV and other infections, he emphasized they still remain a formidable hurdle to eliminating the stigma they have created for Africa.

“It’s very important TICAD discusses international collaboration to fight against infectious diseases, particularly AIDS, tuberculous and malaria, because if they don’t get controlled, Africa will always be handicapped,” Piot, who also received ¥100 million in prize money, said.

The other recipient of the award, 53-year-old Ugandan Alex Coutinho, executive director of the Infectious Disease Institute at Makerere University in Kampala, for 30 years has devoted himself to treating AIDS patients and spearheaded the global effort to widen accessibility to life-prolonging treatments.

In collaboration with Uganda’s The AIDS Support Organization, he played a vital role in hammering out effective HIV prevention measures.

He jointly developed a strategic model with the organization to cope with the AIDS epidemic, as well. Targeting people in Africa’s most impoverished communities, the model gave them unprecedented access to medical treatment.

Coutinho has also taken the initiative in developing a training program to nurture medical talent. At least 30,000 prospective African doctors are estimated to have joined the program over the past decade.

Asked what he will spend his prize money on, Coutinho said he will invest it for future generations, noting, “I recognize one of the key missing ingredients (in modern medicine) is leadership among health workers,” and stressing the need to “incentivize and mobilize” medical organizations to display keener leadership.

Managed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Hideyo Noguchi Africa Prize honors those who have made significant contributions to assisting the world’s attempt to fight diseases.