In the above video, filmed after the event reported on below, the 2nd Hideyo Noguchi Africa Prize laureates, Dr. Peter Piot and Dr. Alex Godwin Coutinho, join UNU Rector David Malone for a conversation looking back at the work of Dr. Noguchi, their own research experiences and prospects for the future of global health.
On 4 June 2013, the 2nd Hideyo Noguchi Africa Prize laureates — Dr. Peter Piot, Director and Professor of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (UK), and Dr. Alex Godwin Coutinho, Executive Director of the Infectious Disease Institute, Makerere University (Uganda) — delivered commemorative addresses at United Nations University in Tokyo.
Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa opened the event by congratulating the laureates for being nominated as scientists who best reflect the self-sacrificing spirit of Dr. Noguchi in their efforts combating disease in Africa.
Dr. Piot began by expressing his admiration for Dr. Noguchi, one of the first truly global scientists in an era before the luxury of fast travel, telecommunications and the Internet. Modern-day scientists face the challenges and benefits of working in a global, cross-disciplinary environment that has resulted in significant progress for health over the past decades, with humans in many countries living far longer than ever before. But Dr. Piot stressed that progress lags in many regions, including Africa, where there is still a long way to go before infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, are effectively suppressed.
Through its overarching theme of global health, Dr. Piot’s presentation brought attention to not only infectious diseases, but also the challenges of non-communicable disease, such as stroke, diabetes and obesity, that confront the international community.
In another example, Dr. Piot pointed out the alarming health consequences of smoking and its inadequate attention from policymakers. He illustrated his comments with a world map highlighting the prevalence of male smokers in regions such as Asia, particularly China. He underscored how tobacco companies have shifted their aggressive marketing campaigns from Europe and North America to transitional countries, including India, as well as to some countries on the African continent, as they view these regions as reserves of potential new smokers.
Returning to Africa, Dr. Piot highlighted that population growth can be perceived in a positive light when considering the young work force that can contribute to economic growth. However, he also argued that social infrastructure, such as public health services, has not improved at the same pace and cannot adequately deal with the challenges of overpopulated cities.
Dr. Piot concluded his presentation by stating that for scientists, “it is not only the work that will change, but also how we work”. Innovative new partnerships between the private and public sectors, as well as between the social and natural sciences, are vital for meeting the Millennium Development Goals and tackling new challenges to global health.
Dr. Alex Godwin Coutinho began his presentation by thanking the Japanese people, and pledging to use his voice to promote Japan, just as he promotes Africa and HIV-positive people. The focus of his lecture was to give the audience a sense of how “the work done in laboratories is brought into the world”. Sub-Saharan Africa is predominantly rural, so it is vital that essential science and technological advances are utilized to bring health to those living in rural areas.
Focusing on the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Dr. Coutinho reminded the audience that before the 2000s, very few Africans had access to testing and treatment services. The reality of the epidemic was dire: broken families, children caring for parents, HIV-positive grandmothers looking after their grandchildren because the parents had already died, and orphaned children. In response, many funds and initiatives, driven particularly by the United Nations, were set up to combat the problem.
As Executive Director of the AIDS Support Organization (TASO), Dr. Coutinho began a series of community-based programmes that mobilized those already operating in the rural communities. Rather than waiting for a perfect health system to be built, he advocated a sustained scale-up, delivering the highest quality service possible rather than waiting and suffering a greater loss of life.
The success of this method is evident in the many lives saved, and in the change in attitude towards HIV testing and treatment. Dr. Coutinho stressed the need to keep this momentum going in order to ensure that technology and knowledge reach both cities and villages.
The belief that people can be empowered through science has been the driving force behind Dr. Coutinho’s work. In knowing one’s HIV status or receiving a correct and efficient diagnosis, people are empowered to make informed decisions about their lives.
UNU Rector David Malone thanked the laureates for their inspiring speeches, which drove home the need to focus not so much on developing new high-tech solutions but on delivering low-cost solutions to vulnerable populations. Dr. Coutinho elaborated on this by emphasizing the potential viability of micro-financing schemes to drive new ideas and global health innovation.
The audience posed questions on topics ranging from the controversial debates surrounding the health benefits of circumcision to the potential shift away from a global health focus in post-MDG resolutions.
The laureates and panel members responded that some debates are luxuries that cannot be afforded in the field, and that scientists can only use the tools available and scale up to save as many lives as possible. In terms of the future of the MDGs, health must continue to be a concern, but the greatest improvements in health come not from vaccines and pills but through a broader development agenda: the improvement of housing, safe water and universal education.
In her closing remarks, Dr. Fumiko Kasuga, Vice President of the Science Council of Japan, thanked the laureates for their presentations and noted the need for more action. She congtratulated both Dr. Piot and Dr. Coutinho for providing inspiration and hope that global challenges, old and new, can be overcome with further advances and proper support.