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Japan has awarded its inaugural Africa Prize for medical research to UK researcher Brian Greenwood, for his work on malaria.

The Hideyo Noguchi prize, of 100 million yen (US$976,600), is awarded every five years and honours those who have made a significant contribution to fighting infectious disease in Africa.

The prize will be presented at the fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Yokohama, Japan, next month (28 May).

Greenwood, a professor of clinical tropical medicine at the UK-based London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was selected for his contribution to creating and designing effective strategies to control malaria.

He spent 15 years as director of the Medical Research Council (UK) laboratories in the Gambia, leading research into malaria and other diseases such as meningitis and pneumonia. His research has included field trials of drugs and vaccines, and evaluations of the effectiveness of insecticide-treated bednets.

The awards committee praised Greenwood's achievements in "reinventing field research in tropical medicine", bringing laboratory research, preventative medicine and social research together.

Greenwood says approaches that consider the broader context of new treatment or interventions were unheard of when he first started work in Africa.

"[Research] would often have been completely focused on whether the vaccine prevents malaria or the drug kills malaria, not the broader context of what people will think of it and [whether it is] cost effective."

"When we did the first bednet trials in the Gambia, I asked for the help of an anthropologist and an economist. We thought if this was going to work we would need to think about the social issues surrounding any new malaria intervention: will people like it, how much will it cost? It seemed the sensible thing to do then."

The awards committee also recognised Greenwood's commitment to training and mentoring young African scientists.

He told SciDev.Net, "The most important things you are going to leave behind are not particular bits of research you did but the people you've trained and encouraged and helped to get off on the right footing."

Greenwood plans to use his award to fund further capacity building programmes.