The popular saying that goldfish have no hiding place aptly summaries the story of Dr. Uche Amazigo, Nigeria’s renowned scientist, former senior lecturer and public health specialist who has continued to win laurels for her outstanding contribution to finding solutions for numerous global public health problems.

The latest feather to Dr. Amazigo’s rich hat is the prestigious Prince Mahidol Award 2012, for playing a crucial role behind the successful Community-Directed Treatment with Ivermectin (CDTI) strategy used by the World Health Organization (WHO) for the control of Onchocerciasis.
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Onchocerciasis or River blindness is a major cause of blindness and skin disease with unrelenting itching, in many African countries. The success of the CDTI approach, results from linking research and management strategies and empowering communities to fully participate and assume ownership of their health care delivery system.

As a leading figure in the introduction and application of CDTI, which is also known as the Community-Directed Intervention (CDI) Strategy in the treatment and control of diseases, Dr. Amazigo’s research in 1990 provided the scientific basis for the establishment of the WHO’s African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control (WHO/APOC), with headquarters in Burkina Faso. This unique programme has always been run by Africans for Africans, the disease having plagued the continent for centuries.

Dr. Amazigo, described as a scientist with a large heart for the poor, is instrumental in the success in bringing the disease under control and in strengthening community health systems in 140,000 communities in 16 of the 19 countries covered by WHO/APOC.

Although community-directed treatment was introduced as a strategy to increase coverage and access to a drug for river blindness control, the strategy has had tremendous impacts on the control of other diseases and essential healthcare services in Africa. It is estimated that this strategy, which she defended and devoted almost two decades working with the rural poor to scale up, has also benefited over 11 million people in Africa in malaria control and another 37 million people from other types of diseases.

Having worked within WHO/APOC management since its inception in 1996, Dr. Amazigo became the programme’s first female director in 2005 and steered it successfully for almost six years. She retired in April 2011, capping a long and distinguished career of service to poor hard-to-reach African communities. During her leadership, the successes of APOC’s operations saw the focus on the fight against Onchocerciasis move from control to actual elimination of the disease with the Onchocerciasis control programme widely recognized as being the most successful and innovative public health campaign in the world.
 
A total of 75 medical personnel and scientists from 34 countries across the world, were nominated this year for the Prince Mahidol Awards. Dr. Amazigo, a recipient of the distinguished Medal of “Knight of the National Order of Burkina Faso” in 2011, clinched the coveted prize in the public health category, while Britain’s Sir Michael David Rawlins, chairman of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), is the winner in the field of medicine.

The Awards are given by the Thai Royal Family annually for outstanding achievements in medicine and public health worldwide and each awardee, receives a US$100,000 cash prize.

Typical of her modesty and unassuming character, Dr. Amazigo, says she is humbled by the award, which she is receiving on behalf of African communities, Merck & Co. Inc., for donating Ivermectin for the treatment of River Blindness control for as long as needed, Governments, APOC Management, WHO, World Bank, APOC donors, NGDOs, Research Institutions, and her family.

“The money from the Award will be used to expand the philosophy of CDI - community-directed school health and feeding programme in resource-poor settings in Nigeria,” she affirmed.

Dr. Amazigo and Sir Michael will receive their awards at a ceremony in Thailand in January 2013.

Meanwhile, accolades have been pouring in congratulating and celebrating Dr. Amazigo for her latest laurel, including from Nigeria’s Health Minister, Prof. C.O. Onyebuchi Chukwu.

In its own reaction, the Washington D.C.-based Sabin Vaccine Institute, a non-profit organization made up of scientists, researchers, and advocates dedicated to reducing needless human suffering from vaccine preventable and neglected tropical diseases, described Dr. Amazigo as “a champion for NTD (Neglected Tropical Diseases) control and elimination in Africa.”

Renowned Nigerian musician, Onyeka Onwenu, popularly called the “Elegant Stallion,” a great admirer of Dr. Amazigo’s described the awardee as “a magnificent human being; a humble innovator with a strong passion and commitment to good causes.”

“I have travelled and worked with her on the field,” Onyeka said, adding that the award was overdue for Dr. Amazigo’s exceptional dedication to duty and service to humanity.

Only recently, Dr. Amazigo was honoured by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Medical Research Institute of Tanzania for her immense contributions to public health management, while WHO/APOC received the One-million-Euro António Champalimaud Vision Award 2011, the biggest global award for outstanding contributions to the prevention of visual impairment and blindness.

The Nigerian scientist is also presently lending her CDI expertise to the Campaign by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to eliminate Malaria in the region by 2015 through an integrated vector control strategy as happened with the successful River Blindness control programme.

Dr. Amazigo received a Ph.D. in Biology and Medical Parasitology from the University of Vienna in Austria. She also trained in Tropical Medicine and Parasitology at the Bernhard-Nocht Institute of Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany, and got a Fellowship in International Health from Harvard School of Public Health, U.S.A.

A member of the Consultative Group on Women's Health for the 1993 World Development Report, one eloquent testimony to Amazigo's well-documented work in communication, advocacy, community mobilisation and partnership is the UNFPA-UNIFEM-sponsored film "Broken Wings," which she produced for the World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995. The 2005 nominee for the Global Champion of Health award by the US WGGH/NOVA Science has also produced and edited several training modules on engaging communities in healthcare delivery, with her works appearing in international publications, including the medical health journal Lancet and the Annals of Tropical Medicine and Parasitology.

Previous laureates of the Prince Mahidol Award include Professor Frederick Sai of Ghana (1995), Alfred Sommer, a prominent American ophthalmologist and professor of epidemiology recognized for his pioneering work in vitamin A deficiency and pediatric mortality (1997), Professor Satoshi Omura, Japan’s world leader in bio-organic chemistry (1997), current WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan of Hong Kong (1998), as well as Nigeria’s internationally renowned public health expert Professor Adetokunbo Lucas (1999).
 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters

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