On the 20th of February 2021, Prof Samir Kumar Saha won Bangladesh’s second highest civilian award, the prestigious Ekushey Padak, for his contribution to research. Liberation Affairs Minister A K M Mozammel Haque handed the awards to the winners on behalf of the honourable Prime Minister of People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Introduced in remembrance of the martyrs of the Bengali Language movement of 21st February 1952, twenty-one distinguished citizens of the country received this esteemed award in their respective fields.
Having published almost 200 scientific papers in peer-reviewed international journals, and holding multiple accolades to his name, Prof Samir Kumar Saha (MSc, PhD, FAAM, FRCPath) is a Professor of Microbiology. He is the Head of the Diagnostic Division of Bangladesh Institute of Child Health, Dhaka Shishu Hospital, an adjunct scientist at icddr,b, an associate at the Department of International Health, Johns Hopkins University, USA and a valued member of various national and international health advisory boards overlooking infectious diseases and vaccinations. He is also the Executive Director of Child Health Research Foundation (CHRF).
Under Prof Saha’s leadership, the CHRF team has generated evidence and facilitated the decision-making process of introducing Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) and pneumococcal vaccines in Bangladesh. With the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) program of Bangladesh, Prof Samir and his team have played an active role in saving the lives of thousands of children. Prof Samir has been awarded the UNESCO Carlos Finlay Prize for research in Microbiology, and the American Society of Microbiology and American Academy of Microbiology award for his contributions to clinical microbiology. He has also been recognized by Bill Gates, as his “Hero”. Based on the quality microbiology service, and generation of evidence for the introduction of vaccines, CHRF’s laboratories in four hospitals of Bangladesh have been accredited as sentinel sites of the World Health Organization. Prof Samir Saha also takes great pride in being a mentor for future scientists, having mentored 49 students from the University of Dhaka, 15 of whom are either pursuing or have completed their doctoral thesis.
Prof Saha completed his undergraduate and master’s degree from University of Dhaka in 1984 and pursued his PhD in Microbiology at the Institute of Medical Sciences, Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in India. He completed his PhD and moved back to Bangladesh in 1989. Since coming back, throughout his career, Prof Saha has been passionate about working with limited resources and gradually building capacity. Starting from a setting with almost no microbiological facilities, he has built five state-of-the-art laboratories and formed a multidisciplinary research team of 300 members with CHRF, which he founded in 2007.
Prof Samir’s contribution to science is mainly focused on paediatric infectious diseases, such as considering its impact in terms of morbidity, mortality and disability. He focused his research on pneumonia, sepsis, meningitis and enteric fever in order to find the true burden of these diseases, their causative organisms, drug resistance patterns and serotype distributions. He has been the principal investigator in multiple projects including the large multi-country community-based project on Aetiology of Neonatal Infection in South Asia (ANISA). His research projects also include clinical trials, surveillance studies for invasive bacterial diseases at hospitals and population-based sites, and measurement of impact of vaccines. Of note, he has led multiple clinical trials on short course antibiotic therapies to rationalize the use of antibiotic for pneumonia and meningitis. As the follow-up of vaccine introduction, Prof Samir and his team at CHRF are now working to measure the vaccine impact to generate further evidence for policymakers. At present, with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Prof Samir is helping enhance the capacity of COVID-19 diagnostics in Bangladesh for pediatric and adult population by generating strong epidemiological data, determining rates of infections in health care providers, establishing a genome sequencing platform for SARS-CoV-2, and a cohort of COVID-19 cases for long-term longitudinal follow-up.
The model established by Prof Saha is one that generates evidence and data efficiently using minimum resources, and then builds larger number of collaborations and attracts additional resources. This setting has become a sustainable model for conducting high-quality research on infectious diseases in low-resource settings and has been largely successful in preventing infections and saving lives. We congratulate him on winning the prestigious Ekushey Padak for his contribution to research and thank him for his dedication and service to society over the past four decades.