BYLINE: Wits University

Newswise — Nicole Basta, an associate professor at Canada’s McGill University and Canada Research Chair in Infectious Disease Prevention, received Sabin's 2024 Rising Star Award.

The awards were made on 18 April 2024 at a ceremony in the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington D.C.

Formidable Wits alumni are world leaders in vaccinology

Klugman and Madhi received the Sabin Gold Medal, one of the highest recognitions for vaccinologists globally, for their seminal combined contributions to the development of vaccines against pneumonia and diarrhoeal disease – major causes of death in children in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

Klugman is a Wits University alumnus who received an honorary doctorate from his alma mater in 2023.

Madhi, also a Wits alumnus, is currently Professor of Vaccinology and Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at  Wits University.

The Gold Medal is Sabin’s highest scientific honour. It has been given annually for more than three decades to a distinguished member of the global health community who has made exceptional contributions to vaccinology or a complementary field. 

Klugman first met his then-graduate student Madhi at Wits University, where Klugman established, and Madhi expanded, a now globally renowned infectious diseases research institute. Apart from pneumonia, their work focused on maternal and children’s vaccines including influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), typhoid, and Group B streptococcus (GBS).

The evidence produced by these two awardees has and continues to inform the World Health Organization’s recommendations for vaccines. Klugman and Madhi’s research has helped pave the way for the introduction of lifesaving vaccines in public immunization programs – including the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine where their findings were pivotal in influencing vaccination policy in many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

Klugman’s efforts help prevent babies from dying of pneumonia

Fueled by an early interest in science as a child in South Africa — in part due to a physician father – Klugman holds both a medical as well as a science doctorate degree from Wits University and was the first student in the school’s history to obtain them simultaneously.

He began his research career nearly five decades ago investigating the typhoid vaccine and has since distinguished himself as a formidable infectious diseases’ scientist.

Klugman is widely known for his work on pneumonia, which still kills a child under five every 43 seconds, many in the world’s poorest countries.

As the director of the pneumonia programme at the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Klugman orchestrates strategic initiatives aimed at reducing deaths from pneumonia, RSV, neonatal sepsis, and meningitis.

He has authored hundreds of publications that have been cited over 50,000 times to date and has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine in the United States. He is also a professor emeritus of global health at Atlanta’s Emory University.

His scientific achievements aside, Klugman has long championed the need for the world’s poorest children to have equitable access to vaccines. While in South Africa he joined in Wits University’s struggle to allow access to the institution for all students.

“It is absolutely wonderful to be receiving this award, especially together with Shabir,” he says. “When I look down the list of previous awardees, I recognize the great majority of them, and it is extraordinary to now be numbered among them.”

Past award recipients include leaders of vaccinology and vaccine advocacy such as Drs. Barney Graham, Carol Baker, Bill Foege, Anne Gershon, Stanley Plotkin, and Kathrin Jansen.

Madhi’s research informed WHO recommendations on universal rotavirus vaccination

With a career spanning more than 25 years, Madhi, also from South Africa, is a trained pediatrician whose research continues to be instrumental in prioritizing the rollout of vital vaccines and guiding global public health policies. At Wits University, he led clinical trials focused on respiratory and meningeal pathogens, including vaccines targeted at pregnant women and their unborn babies.

Madhi led the first study showing that a rotavirus vaccine could significantly prevent severe diarrhea during the first year of life in African infants. That research served as a key piece of evidence for the WHO’s recommendation of universal rotavirus vaccination. In addition, he also led the first two COVID-19 vaccine trials in Africa, and a number of COVID-19 epidemiology studies which led to the first evidence suggesting that infection-induced immunity and vaccinations played a role in reducing severity of disease.

In addition to serving as Professor of Vaccinology and Dean of Health Sciences at Wits University, Madhi heads South Africa’s widely respected South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit (Wits VIDA). He is also the co-founder and co-Director of the African Leadership Initiative for Vaccinology Expertise (ALIVE).

He has co-authored hundreds of publications which have been cited over 59,000 times. Madhi is a recipient of numerous lifetime achievement awards in South Africa, as well being bestowed an Honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) from the British Government for his services to science and public health in a global pandemic.

“It is really humbling for me to be acknowledged for my contributions in the field of vaccinology along with those who have received the Gold Medal award,” says Madhi. "It makes me realize that the work my team and I have done is acknowledged by my peers as being of substance. Most significantly, we contributed to protecting lives in those settings where a majority of death and suffering occurs, and that is in LMICs.”

Amy Finan, Sabin’s chief executive officer, says, “I am honored to award the Sabin Gold Medal to Dr. Klugman and Dr. Madhi for their extraordinary work on vaccines that have saved lives in communities most in need of these interventions. Their pneumonia research has been particularly transformative in shaping our understanding of the disease and strengthening global health strategies to protect children from this vaccine-preventable disease.”

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Newswise: Vaccinologists Keith Klugman and Shabir Madhi awarded Sabin’s Prestigious Gold Medal



Newswise: Vaccinologists Keith Klugman and Shabir Madhi awarded Sabin’s Prestigious Gold Medal