Noguchi winner says award good for Africa

by Reuben Kyama

Kyodo News

Miriam Were, a Kenyan medical worker who recently won the inaugural Hideyo Noguchi Africa Award, has said Japan’s decision to establish the prize is a step forward in the fight against disease on the world’s poorest continent.

Were, 68, will leave for Japan later this month to receive the prize, along with her British counterpart, Brian Greenwood, for her work in medical research. Each winner will receive ¥100 million provided by the Japanese government and other donors.

According to Japanese officials, Were won the award for her efforts to bring basic medical care and health rights to women and children in poor villages in east Africa. As chairwoman of the National Aids Control Council, she has also been instrumental in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

“I’m very happy to get the prize because as a family, we feel our efforts have been recognized, and secondly, this recognition has gone to our work with the community,” she said.

The award, established in July 2006, is named after Japanese biologist Hideyo Noguchi, who died in Ghana in 1928 while researching yellow fever.

Were said the continent still faces serious problems and needs solutions to medical and health challenges.

“Many times we sit and talk in big hotels and then think that it has happened, but it’s not happening until it happens in the community,” said Were, a former chairwoman at the African Medical and Research Foundation.

The award ceremony is scheduled for the evening of May 28, at the opening of the fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Yokohama, to be attended by African heads of state and government. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda will host the ceremony.

Officials said Were has been a beacon of hope for millions of people in Africa and the world. In 1995, she founded the UZIMA Foundation, a nongovernmental organization committed to improving the lives of young Kenyans.

But she is worried about the future of Africa, with the effects of climate change likely to push poverty levels to alarming rates despite global efforts to reverse the trend.

“Poverty is an increasing problem in Africa due to climate change, and that’s why we need Japan to help us,” she said.

Born in western Kenya, Were attained her precollege education in rural Kenya before attending a U.S. university. “Back then,” she said, “traditional medicine was the only treatment available in the village, but the British colonial government had banned its use.”

The mother of five said she has dedicated her life to advancing the health and welfare of the people of Africa by focusing on the practicality of delivering services at the local level. She is currently involved in helping communities put up public toilets and improve personal hygiene.

“Ever since I got into the medical profession in the 1970s, I have felt the need to push for easy access to health care for all,” she said.

Were said the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS is still a serious problem, though some noticeable progress has been made. Her work through direct engagement with young people, sex workers, drug addicts and homosexuals to encourage openness and frank discussions on sexuality and HIV/AIDS has led to a reduction in discrimination against those living with the virus.

Were said she first learned about Noguchi from his work on yellow fever in Ghana and was later inspired to read his biography.

“He’s a good example of persistence, a strong humanitarian personality who was committed to improving the lives of the world’s poor,” she said. “That’s why he died in Africa, far away from his home country.”