I had never heard of Tu Youyou (屠呦呦), a native of Ningbo, Zhejiang province, and a medical scientist at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, until she became the first Chinese Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine.
She is also the first citizen of communist China to receive a Nobel prize in the natural sciences.
But I have witnessed how artemisinin — the most efficient and affordable drug for malaria, which Tu discovered and purified — helps protect lives in the least developed tropical areas.
I resumed my post as the principal columnist at the Hong Kong Economic Journal in the fall of 2007 after sailing from the South Pacific back to Hong Kong to wrap up two years of travels.
The trip back home included a 2,000 nautical mile journey along the equator and a further 1,000 nautical miles within the neighboring tropical waters.
During the journey, I needed to stop in at least three islands in the region for supplies.
Thus medicines for infectious diseases, including malaria, became a top necessity.
There’s no vaccine for malaria, and the most common method of prevention is to use mosquito repellent or to wear long-sleeved clothing and trousers.
The only malaria drug I had back then was a type of antibiotic called doxycycline, which may bring severe side effects.
As prescribed, I had to take this drug for 70 days, starting from four days before entering areas where malaria was common and ending four weeks after leaving these infected islands.
I berthed my boat at Madang to replenish my supplies.
It is a small port on the island of New Guinea, my second stop along the way.
One day, while I was chatting with an Australian who owned a boatyard there, one of his workers asked for leave, as her son had been bitten by mosquitos and got malaria.
The Aussie gave the woman some pills. He told me the medicine, made in China, was cheap but highly effective.
These pills were made from the artemisinin discovered by Tu.
Doxycycline is never an expensive drug in the developed world – the typical dose for 10 days of treatment costs around HK$100 — yet the price can be 10 times higher in places with short supply, way out of reach of the poor.
With her novel therapy, a significant breakthrough in tropical medicine, Tu has saved millions of lives across the planet.
It’s interesting to see that Tu’s great honor has come as an embarrassment to some people in Hong Kong.
Several members of the University of Hong Kong council insisted recently that top academic credentials, such as a doctorate, are a must for a senior post at the institution.
Li Hui (李輝), an associate professor in HKU’s Faculty of Education who hails from Beijing, said at an open forum that his academic influence is “200 times” that of Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, who does not have a PhD and was denied appointment as pro vice chancellor at HKU.
Li said his own impact factor — a measure reflecting the average number of citations to recent publications — is “200 times” higher than Chan’s number, based on a search on Google Scholar.
According to Li, the total number of citations Chan has garnered since 1997 is just 110.
Tu does not have a doctorate, nor has she ever been nominated for membership in the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
I found on Google Scholar that the number of citations to her publications was 101 during the same period, even lower than that of Chan.
I wonder if Li will also say he is more influential than a Nobel laureate?
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 8.
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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