Walter Waukesha

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Kiwanis International Names 2009 World Service Medal Recipient

The Kiwanis World Service Medal, established in 1985, recognizes individuals who devote a significant part of their lives to meeting the needs of others.

“The malaria death toll in Africa is staggering, the equivalent of seven 747 airliners full of children crashing into Mount Kilimanjaro every day,” said Don Canady, Kiwanis International president. “Worldwide some 500 million children and adults are sickened with malaria every year. We eliminated malaria in the United States 50 years ago, so our children are no longer threatened. Now is the time to eliminate malaria everywhere. The children of the world deserve action.”

Action is what Heppner has been taking since 1990, when he joined the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research’s (WRAIR) Malaria Vaccine Development Program. Heppner was both humbled and excited to work at an institute that developed vaccines to protect against deadly tropical diseases such as Japanese encephalitis, hepatitis A, dengue and diarrhea.

“Malaria kills 1 in 5 children born in Sub-Saharan Africa,” states Heppner. “Many children who survive severe malaria suffer life-long learning disabilities. The costs are borne by grieving mothers and fathers, their families and communities.” For these reasons, Heppner and others have devoted their careers to developing a vaccine to prevent malaria.

Heppner was so committed to the cause, he enrolled as a volunteer in one of the early trials of a malaria vaccine at WRAIR. The test vaccine was ineffective, so Heppner—like the other volunteers in the study—contracted malaria from malaria-infected test mosquitoes, and suffered the flu-like symptoms caused by the deadly parasite in the blood. Two days of effective drug treatment cured him, drugs too expensive and too scarce for the world’s malaria-afflicted poor to obtain.

Heppner’s quest to defeat malaria continued in malaria-ridden refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese Burma border in 1993 to 1997, where he was stunned to see how malaria devastated families who could not afford effective treatment for their children. He learned even the newest drugs to treat malaria quickly lose potency, underscoring the need to develop a vaccine to prevent malaria.

He has played a pivotal role in the development of the world’s most promising malaria vaccine called RTS,S. His team of scientists from WRAIR, working with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), carried out critical vaccine studies in Africa, Asia, Europe and the USA. With the entry of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2001, global efforts have broadened, resulted in the start this year of Africa-wide multi-center trials intended to license the RTS,S malaria vaccine for children. Heppner notes, “If successful, there is real hope the RTS,S vaccine could reduce severe malaria by 50 percent. Yet 50 percent protection is not good enough for children or for soldiers.”

Heppner remains focused on developing an even more effective malaria vaccine. “The global health community realizes the tool kit to combat malaria must include more than bed nets and treatment drugs; it requires a vaccine. Most importantly, he recognizes that real progress in the war on malaria requires strong, healthy international partnerships united by purpose. “Only with a team of teams, the U.S. Army, the Gates Foundation, industry, the U.S. Agency for International Development, universities, ministries of health, and others can real progress be made. Until malaria is eliminated, WRAIR’s scientists and physicians will work to develop safe, more effective drugs and vaccines to protect those at risk.”

The World Service Medal publicizes inspiring examples of individuals who have recognized a need and taken personal action to meet that need. One medal is awarded each year and the Kiwanis International Foundation adds a US$10,000 grant to assist the honoree in furthering his or her service work. Previous winners have included Mother Teresa, actors and humanitarians Sir Roger Moore and Audrey Hepburn and First Ladies Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter.

On receiving the e-mail notification of the award, Heppner was deeply moved. “I had welcomed my Lynchburg, Virginia hometown nomination, but never, ever anticipated one of the world’s preeminent charities for children would recognize the importance of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research’s efforts to fight malaria. I hope this Kiwanis award will inspire thousands more to join the fight,” said Heppner. “Malaria can be eliminated if we say enough is enough and take action.”

In another demonstration of service and leadership, Heppner said he would not keep the $10,000 grant. Instead, he will donate it to a Kiwanis school in Africa that helps children and families hard hit by malaria.

“WRAIR established a field station and a pediatric ward in the City of Kisumu, Kenya,” said Heppner. “Close by is a nursery school, operated by the Kiwanis of Kisumu, which educates and feeds children whose families have been afflicted by malaria and HIV/AIDS.” The grant will be given, he said, to the Kiwanis Nursery School in Kisumu, Kenya.

“Col. Heppner’s work isn’t just about saving people, especially children, today. It’s about saving people, period. His work will someday give people, children the opportunity to be healthy and happy, to give them hope to live the best life they can,” said Canaday. “Col. Heppner’s work is a living demonstration of Kiwanis mission to provide life-changing service.”

About WRAIR

The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) in Silver Spring, Maryland develops U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved vaccines and drugs to protect against tropical diseases. These include malaria, HIV/AIDS, diarrheal diseases, leishmaniasis and dengue fever. Recent successes include licensed vaccines for hepatitis A and Japanese Encephalitis. See http://wrair-www.army.mil/

About Kiwanis International

Headquartered in Indianapolis, Kiwanis International is one of the world’s largest service organizations with 600,000 youth and adult members in 70 countries. Through service and fund-raising projects, Kiwanians improve the quality of life for children and their communities.

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