Yomiuri International Cooperation Prize / Expert recognized for swatting a parasitic disease

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Kazuyo Ichimori speaks at the award ceremony for the 29th Yomiuri International Cooperation Prize in Tokyo on Nov. 28.

Kazuyo Ichimori, a visiting professor at Nagasaki University, has been named as recipient of the 29th Yomiuri International Cooperation Prize for her commitment to eliminating the mosquito-borne tropical disease lymphatic filariasis (see below) in developing countries — particularly during her time as a World Health Organization specialist.

Her work has led to progress in conquering the disease in Pacific island countries and regions, where she lived for more than 16 years.

Ichimori, 71, first learned about filariasis when she saw photos of patients while studying mosquitoes at university. At that time, she was shocked to learn that such a disease existed. People who suffered swelling in their legs and scrotums were unable to work or carry out daily activities. Body deformities caused by the malady often led to superstition-based discrimination, causing social ostracism and making sufferers’ lives even worse.

“I want to eradicate this tragic disease,” Ichimori recalls thinking.

Fired by a desire to fight filariasis overseas, Ichimori overcame her family’s opposition and traveled to Samoa as part of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers initiative under the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

In Samoa, she visited various villages and collected mosquitoes, and would even sometimes allow herself to be bitten as part of her research. Witnessing the situation endured by patients, she says she came to feel there was “something more” she could do.

At age 40, Ichimori joined WHO as a specialist in tropical disease control, and was responsible for patient care and distributing medicine and mosquito nets.

After being selected to lead the Pacific program to eliminate lymphatic filariasis, she visited islands in the region by boat and light aircraft. She devised methods to suit mosquito ecologies and residents’ lifestyles — both of which differ from island to island — and drew up detailed guidelines to combat the disease. Thanks to Ichimori’s guidelines, the affliction has been brought under control in eight Pacific countries and territories, including the Cook Islands and Vanuatu.

Valuable groundwork

Jonathan King, who took over from Ichimori as head of the WHO’s Global Program to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis, said she lived in the field for a long time and familiarized herself with what needed to be done.

The WHO program was launched in 2000 based on Ichimori’s guidelines. King said Ichimori’s work was responsible for the progress made in controlling the disease around the globe.

Japan also plays an important role in the WHO program. For example, Eisai Co., a pharmaceutical company based in Tokyo, provides developing countries with free oral medicine to treat the disease. The number of infections caused by filarial parasites worldwide fell to about 50 million in 2018, down 74% from 2000.

According to King, the disease could potentially be eliminated in 58 countries and regions — which account for 80% of the countries and regions where the disease has been reported — by 2030.

Japanese know-how

More than 1 billion people around the globe suffer from so-called neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), including lymphatic filariasis and dengue fever. These ailments are considered sources of poverty.

“Japan has experience in eliminating filariasis and malaria, so it can contribute its knowledge to the world,” said Aya Yajima, a 45-year-old Regional Adviser for Neglected Tropical Disease Control in the WHO South-East Asia Regional Office.

Since returning to Japan, Ichimori has helped campaign to raise awareness about NTDs and mosquito-borne health risks.

“My job is to develop a path,” Ichimori said. “I want to nurture human resources from Japan who can contribute globally to humanity’s future. We shouldn’t leave it to the next generation to deal with NTDs.”

Lymphatic filariasis

Filamentous worms enter the body via mosquitoes and parasitize lymphatic tissue, causing elephantiasis, a condition in which the feet swell to sizes likened to an elephant’s. Japan overcame the disease in the 1970s. It is associated with poverty, and more than 800 million people in Africa, South Asia and Latin America are at risk of infection.

Kazuyo Ichimori

Visiting Professor at Nagasaki University

Ichimori was born in Tokyo. After graduating from Tamagawa University’s College of Agriculture, she studied tropical diseases and mosquitoes at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Medical Science and elsewhere before earning a doctorate in malaria research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She studied mosquitoes in Africa and Latin America and worked for the World Heath Organization from 1992 to 2013. She was in charge of eliminating lymphatic filariasis in Samoa, Vanuatu and Fiji before moving to WHO headquarters in 2006, where she headed up the WHO Global Program to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis between 2010 and 2013.