Prestigious award for MSF health advisor Koert Ritmeijer for his groundbreaking research into Kala Azar

November 1, 2010

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Prestigious award for MSF health advisor Koert Ritmeijer for his groundbreaking research into Kala Azar © Jaap Oppenhuizen/MSF

MSF’s Koert Ritmeijer (53) has received the Eijkman Medal during a ceremony at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The Eijkman Medal is the most prestigious Dutch prize in the field of tropical medical science and is awarded every two years to scientists who have made a major contribution to research. Koert Ritmeijer was awarded the medal for his groundbreaking research into kala azar (visceral leishmaniasis).

Kala azar is a neglected tropical disease responsible for 51,000 deaths every year, according to the World Health Organisation. The disease is spread by infected sandflies who bite humans, transferring the parasite that affects the human immune system. Without proper treatment, kala azar can cause death within months. Mostly it affects people in Sudan, Ethiopia, India, Bangladesh and Brazil.

Koert Ritmeijer has worked for MSF since 1989, and is currently researcher and coordinator of the health advisors in the Amsterdam office of MSF. He first began to focus on kala azar during a mission to Sudan in 1995. Ritmeijer completed a PHD at the University of Amsterdam in 2006 and wrote his thesis on ways of fighting the disease.

‘Médecins Sans Frontières has been crucial to the development of diagnosis and medication for this disease’, says Ritmeijer, ‘Fifteen years ago, the only way to diagnose kala azar was in a hospital and the treatment was an injection of 30 days with severe side effects. Thank to our research and lobbying with the pharmaceutical industry, now the disease can simply be identified in a health post and cured with a far shorter treatment.’

‘We are very proud of Koert Ritmeijer, whose efforts have made it possible for MSF and other organisations to help and treat tens of thousands of people with kala azar and other neglected diseases and save their lives’, says Pim de Graaf, president of the Dutch section of MSF.

Receiving the Eijkman Medal, named after Dutch physician Christiaan Eijkman who received the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1929, will be a boost to all MSF’s work on neglected diseases. Sleeping sickness and Chagas disease are also desperately in need of increased research and more up-to-date treatments, but this is held back by a lack of funding. The pharmaceutical industry is reluctant to invest in developing drugs for these diseases, because the countries where the diseases are endemic are simply too poor to pay for drugs. MSF has been campaigning since early 2000 for research into developing treatments for those neglected diseases.

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