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Widow wins top honour for vaccine research

Update: March, 18/2014 - 08:44
Luan works at a laboratory at the Centre for Research and Production of Vaccines and Biologicals. — VNS Photos

by Thu Van

HA NOI — When Le Thi Luan, deputy director of the Ministry of Health's Centre for Research and Production of Vaccines and Biologicals, returned to work after taking two weeks off, her colleagues were silent. They did not know what to say.

Luan quickly changed her clothes and went directly into the laboratory. Her calm voice and demeanour told her colleagues that it was business as usual, and they got to work. They gave her an update on what had happened during her absence and she chaired a discussion on what they would do next.

It was a Monday morning in September 2003. Luan had taken two weeks off because her husband had died of a disease about which little is known to the world to date. (She did not want to dwell on the topic.)

At the end of that day, she returned home and had dinner with her 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, who were still in shock after their father's death. He used to take care of every little and big thing for them so that their mother could devote all the time she wanted for her research.

Luan is the head of a research project for domestic production of a rotavirus vaccine, which began in 1998. At that time, there were only two kinds of Rota vaccine available in the country, both of them imported.

Five years after starting the research project, success was nowhere near for Luan, but now she was saddled with all the tasks that her husband used to do for their family.

She would also have to carry on with the project. That night, Luan cried before going to bed, and thought of her husband.

This routine did not vary for the next 11 years.

A long journey

Kovalevskaia Prize winner Le Thi Luan.

On March 8, 2014, Luan stepped on the stage to receive the Kovalevskaia Prize, named after the Russian mathematician and advocate of women's rights, Sofia Kovalevskaya.

She had been chosen for an award that aims to encourage Vietnamese women to advance themselves and contribute to the nation's progress.

Fifteen years after she began working on producing Rotavin-M1, an anti-diarrhoea vaccine for children, the "made-in-Vietnam" rotavirus vaccine was introduced to domestic market in 2012.

Viet Nam had become only the second country in Asia and the fourth in the world to produce the vaccine.

As she walked to the stage, Luan's thoughts went to the old, small almost deserted health clinic in her village in Vinh Phuc Province, where she was born and raised.

It was located at the end of the village, near a big tree, which made it look very lonely. Luan, the second eldest child in the family, had taken her mother there four times when she was in labour, and countless other times when her younger sisters fell sick.

There was nothing but an old bed inside the clinic and one or two nurses who would give patients pills for normal pains and illnesses. If someone had a serious health problem, there was no point in going to the clinic. They would have to walk several miles to get to the district hospital, and if they couldn't walk, they would have to be carried on an old-style hammock. There were people who died on the way.

These memories motivated her to become a doctor.

When she graduated after nine years of study from the Ha Noi Medical University, Professor Hoang Thuy Nguyen, a leading virus expert and vaccine researcher in Viet Nam, saw something special in her thesis. He asked her to work for the Centre for Research and Production of Vaccines and Biologicals.

No short-cuts

The initiative to produce the rotavirus vaccine was taken in 1998 when Luan took part in a World Health Organisation programme to prevent diarrhoea among Vietnamese children. Rotavirus was then the leading cause of severe diarrhoea afflicting children worldwide. According to the most recent World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates, rotavirus is responsible for more than 500,000 child deaths every year. Most deaths occur in developing countries.

Reflecting on the 15 long years it had taken for the research and production to succeed, Luan said it was well worth every effort and well worth the patience it had demanded and taken.

"There were times when we failed and failed again. What I learned from this is that you have to be calm in every situation, and figure out the next steps." Although she was speaking of calmness, there was some excitement in her voice as she recalled the progress made in making the vaccine.

It took three years to carry out surveys on children with diarrhea in the country so as to identify peculiarities and important features in the local epidemiology of the disease.

Then it took another five years to isolate and characterize three human rotavirus strains being considered for further vaccine development.

There were factors that made this work even more difficult, Luan recalled.

"Doing scientific research in Viet Nam is much more difficult than in developed countries. They have separate and professional teams for each phase of the research, but scientists in Viet Nam, like me, have to do everything, from cleaning up the laboratory to taking care of the animals on whom the vaccines are being tested," Luan said.

Luan has a PhD in Virology.

The rotavirus candidate was then evaluated for two years on African blue monkeys which were being bred on Reu Island in the northern province of Quang Ninh. Finally, Luan and her colleagues had to wait for another five years, carrying out clinical trials of the vaccine – Rotavin.

"It was a tough time. When we tried the vaccine on 200 children, my colleagues and I couldn't sleep well for a whole month and always had to keep our phone on," Luan recalled.

But the tension and the hard work produced results.

Rotavin was evaluated by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and approved for use by the National Institute for Control of Vaccines and Biologicals in July, 2011.

Since then, nearly 100,000 children in 60 cities and provinces have received the vaccine, which costs one-third the price of imported products. In Viet Nam, more than 50 per cent of children under five suffer from diarrhea each year. Luan said as many as 6,800 Vietnamese children under five will be successfully treated for the disease each year thanks to the vaccine.

"From a country that was totally dependent on imported vaccine, Viet Nam now can produce 11 kinds of vaccines. It's a great step forward."

Luan took the award she'd just won in her stride with the same calmness she had faced adverse circumstances, staying focused on the bigger prize.

"The Kovalevskaia Prize, or any other prize, is not my final destination. When you're working on the production of something, what you want most is the successful product." — VNS

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