NATIONAL HARBOR - Professor John Owusu Gyapong was awarded the fifth annual Kyelem Prize on November 19, 2019 at the annual meeting of the Coalition for Operational Research on Neglected Tropical Diseases (COR-NTD). The award was presented by Dr. Eric Ottesen, former director of the NTD Support Center, along with Melissa Kyelem, the daughter of the prize's namesake. Dr. Ottesen's remarks are below, along with pictures from the event.
ERIC OTTESEN: We’ve reached the point in our meeting again when we really don’t have to think very hard any more – but can just relax a few minutes to bring forward those good feelings and great memories around some of our most outstanding friends and professional colleagues, as we bestow COR-NTD’s annual Dominique Kyelem prize – meant to recognize special people who have been particularly effective in bringing together
- those who implement neglected tropical disease control and elimination programs and
- those who support or conduct research to address those programs’ needs.
The proportion of people at COR-NTD who actually had the privilege of knowing Dominique personally and understanding why this prize is named in his honor, gets smaller each year, so let me just remind us all that Dominique was from Burkina Faso and received his training and academic degrees both there and in Europe.
In Burkina he was first a District medical officer and then program manager for the LF program. Indeed, with support from the Liverpool School and DfID funding, he was one of a very special group of 3 African program managers who really pioneered the Mass Drug Administration approach to LF elimination and the integration of LF programs with other NTD and public health initiatives.
Along with these early colleagues, Dominique became a major player on the global NTD stage and then later, took on the role of Program Director at our LF Support Center at the Task Force for Global Health. In all of these roles Dominique was everyone’s friend, everyone’s go-to person for guidance, and the source of everyone’s favorite smile and positivity. In 2013, we lost Dominique to an aggressive form of bone cancer, but it is his wonderful personal attributes that we celebrate in the individuals now chosen each year to receive the Kyelem prize – competence, effectiveness, collegiality, sincerity, and unquenchable determination and optimism.
Then, in 2013, as a community we came together to share our common grief and also to offer some support to Dominique’s surviving wife and 3 daughters. Now, before going on to this year’s selection process, I want to share some very positive updates on Dominique’s family. His wife Regine has continued to be a successful practicing beautician; Brenda, the oldest daughter, has finished Nursing School and is now working as a nurse; Ashley, the 3rd daughter is in her 2nd year of college in California; and Melissa, his middle daughter, has taken her very active modeling career already to Europe, Africa and even New York where you can see her very clearly if you chance to look upward either in Times Square or near Madison Square Garden in the City.
This year, nominations for the Kyelem prize were solicited in July from the more than 900 individuals receiving invitations to the COR-NTD meeting. In total, 14 different individuals were nominated, and a short list of those receiving multiple nominations was established. The shortlist was then reviewed independently by an 8-person panel of global health experts – completely outside of the Task Force, I must add – including representatives from WHO, from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. These individuals voted by secret ballot to choose this year’s awardee, who will join our previous distinguished Kyelem Prize recipients: Julie Jacobson, V. Kumaraswami, Mwele Malecela and David Molyneux, and Alan Fenwick – all of whom have been celebrated by our NTD community in recent years for their competence, effectiveness, collegiality, sincerity, and unquenchable determination and optimism.
So, with all that as the background, it is a great pleasure for me to announce that This year's winner is Professor John O. Gyapong!
Before I ask Professor Gyapong (or ‘Johnny’ as he is known to most of his colleagues) to come forward to receive his award, let me share with you just a few words about his career and the sentiments of those who chose to honor him this year. Johnny grew up in Ghana, receiving both his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi and then his public health and PhD degrees from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
A few minutes ago, I mentioned that there was a very special group of 3 African program managers who really pioneered the Mass Drug Administration approach to LF elimination and its integration with other NTD and public health initiatives. Dominique Kyelem was one of these individuals, and the other two were Mwele Malecela and Johnny Gyapong. All three were products of years of UK higher education and academic training, and of years of very practical programmatic research work with WHO – especially its Tropical Disease Research (TDR) and Control of Tropical Diseases (CTD) units – experiences that assured their development as the careful researchers needed to address the very considerable challenges of fledgling LF (and other NTD) programs.
Dr. Gyapong’s early exposure to LF came in the early 1990s when he was working in northern Ghana on Vitamin A and malaria as a pediatrician and epidemiologist. The clinical suffering he saw from LF there (both lymphedema and hydroceles) left him with a permanent determination that the clinical, social and economic needs of each of these individuals must be served – at the same time that the ‘new’ MDA preventative strategies were being refined and implemented.
Wearing many different professional hats over the years (many at the same time!), Johnny began working at the Health Research Unit of Ghana’s MOH in 1994, subsequently becoming
- Program Manager for all the NTDs between 1997-2008,
- Director of Research and Development for the Ministry between 2000-2010,
- Director of the NTD Support Center for Africa at the Noguchi Memorial Institute of the University of Ghana from 2005-2016,
- Professor of Epidemiology and Vice Dean at the School of Public Health 2009-2016, then
- Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research Innovation and Development at the University of Ghana from 2011-2016.
He has chaired or served on virtually every NTD expert committee both in Ghana and internationally, providing wisdom, resourcefulness and an uncanny ability to focus on key questions with integrity, creativity, passion and humor. As one nominator expressed it, “he has a genius for puncturing pomposity,….. gently but tellingly.”
Dr. Gyapong’s own research record is exemplary with continuous funding support from 1992 onwards resulting in more than 100 peer-reviewed articles on critical issues not only relating to NTDs but to other global health issues as well.
Since 2016 the measure of Johnny’s commitment to Ghana, and to the next generation of practitioners, scholars and policy makers, has now come to fruition in his decision, alongside his wife, Professor Margaret Gyapong, to take on the daunting job of Vice Chancellor of the University of Health and Allied Sciences in Ho, Ghana – a new university dedicated to educating the next generation of health practitioners and researchers in Ghana and beyond.
The good news is that this new generation of students and scholars will be led by a man who has walked the walk of a practitioner, researcher, policy maker and teacher for over 25 years. The bad news for so many NTD committees and governance entities is that he has put aside most of these committee roles to dedicate himself to building a new premier educational institution in Ghana. Those who have served with Johnny in committee after committee will be deprived of his vast experience and wisdom for a time, but we can anticipate that his students and scholars will carry on his passion for eliminating NTDs from Ghana and the world, and we will all be the ultimate beneficiaries.
Johnny, while I speak for all of us here today in sharing our congratulations, actually we have one more deviation from our usual script. Rather than to have me do the presenting, because your spirit and contributions to the NTD world have been so intertwined with those of your great friend, Dominique Kyelem, we were delighted when his daughter Melissa agreed to come down from New York to present to you personally……. COR-NTD’s 2019 Dominique Kyelem prize.
Thank you, Johnny, and thank you, Melissa.
Actually, when these likenesses of Dominique were first cast for the prize 4 years ago, we also had one made for Dominique’s family – and Chelsea reminded me recently that we had not yet presented it to them. So, as my final duty today, let me ask Melissa to please accept this casting of the Kyelem prize on behalf of her family in recognition of the high regard that we all hold for her father and for his personal traits that all of our Kyelem prize winners and, indeed, all of us aspire to emulate in our pursuit of solutions to NTD problems globally.