Sasakawa Health Prize 2017
The 2017 Sasakawa Health Prize of US$30 000 for outstanding innovative work in health development, has been awarded to Dr Rinchin Arslan for his remarkable lifelong contribution to the advancement of primary health care in Mongolia and specifically his work in fighting viral hepatitis.
As a young doctor, graduated from Szeged Medial University in Hungary in 1967, Arslan was confronted with viral hepatitis as a growing – but then unconfirmed – health concern.
"Viral hepatitis emerged in the 1960–1970s and was declared the number one health issue causing considerable sickness and death. Children under 4 years of age made up half of the cases. Many of them had a history of life-saving intravenous blood plasma or fluid therapy and injections. My analysis indicated the possibility of hepatitis B infection, but that hypothesis needed to be proven. At that time we did not know much about hepatitis viruses, including hepatitis C, or their mode of transmission. We had no idea that the younger the person exposed to hepatitis B or C virus infection, the higher was the risk of developing chronic hepatitis that could lead to deadly liver cancer."
Through his research in the hepatitis B surface antigen, Arslan was able to demonstrate that hepatitis B was indeed endemic in Mongolia, and affected mainly children.
Arslan then devoted the next years to tackling viral hepatitis, advocating for improvements in injection and blood safety, and increases in hepatitis B vaccination. He designed the Mongolia National immunization programme which was crucial in significantly reducing viral hepatitis transmission at birth and acute viral hepatitis infection in young children.
Arslan was influential in expanding this programme in the 1990s, with the support of JICA,WHO, UNICEF and later GAVI, to sustain other much needed childhood vaccines – polio, DTP, measles and etc., during a difficult period of transition to democratic reforms in the country.
“Mongolia has made significant progress in fighting hepatitis B, but much more needs to be done if we are to end hepatitis C and B in the near future.”
The constantly changing economic, political, and development environment in Mongolia, as in many countries, determines the evolving health challenges.
In addition, Mongolia is prone to natural disasters – extreme cold – called “dzud“ – flooding, earthquakes, and disease outbreaks (such as influenza).
“Our preparedness for relief operations to protect young children, women and the most vulnerable, as well as our counseling services and psychosocial support, has always been a central concern. In my life-time I would love to see a quality health service which is accessible and affordable to all, with improved health education and training of our medical doctors, public health specialists, and health staff in remote areas of our country.”
In 2017, the Mongolian government included hepatitis C medicine into the national health insurance program, which today covers a large proportion of its population. In addition, Mongolia has been a model country in its implementation of the hepatitis B birth dose and infant immunizations, as highlighted especially today by the Sasakawa Award presented to Dr Rinchin Arslan.
The Sasakawa Health Prize was established in 1984 by Mr Ryoichi, Chairman of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation and President of the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation for outstanding accomplishments in health development.
Funds from the prize will be used to support the Ministry of Health to implement Government programmes on the control and reduction of hepatitis B. They will also be used for activities to increase advocacy for better health services and laboratory testing in remote facilities, implement best practices to avoid infection, and reduce possible stigma in families, workplaces, and schools. Funds will also be dedicated to co-organizing, with non-State actors, World Hepatitis Day (28 July) and to provide financial support to young researchers in hepatitis B.
“I am proud and happy to become a laureate of the prestigious Sasakawa award in recognition of my contribution to tackling viral hepatitis and the immunization of children as part of primary health care in my country. I would also like to stress the importance of contributions of the specialists of the former USSR to fighting infectious diseases, including viral hepatitis in Mongolia, and recognize the exclusive leadership and role of WHO, particularly under Dr Chan, in raising awareness of viral hepatitis in member countries.“