Japan's Cancer Prevention Champion
Had Tomio Hirohata followed the path of his three siblings, he might have practiced medicine in his native Japan. Instead, after graduating from the Kyushu University Medical School in 1960, he traveled to Boston and the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), convinced that it was wiser to prevent disease than to treat it. While earning master’s and doctoral degrees in epidemiology, a field largely unknown in his country, he won the esteem of a giant in the field, HSPH professor Brian MacMahon, whose textbook he would soon translate into Japanese.
Returning home, Hirohata joined the faculty at his former medical school to explore risk factors for cancer. Two years later, the United Nations tapped him to write a report on the link between cancer and ionizing radiation. Submitted to the U.N. General Assembly and published in 1972, this effort put Hirohata on the map: He became the first scientist to calculate cancer risk per unit dose of radiation, a feat that paved the way for setting international guidelines to limit human exposures. Today Hirohata continues to supervise research by an organization that for nearly half a century has studied lifetime cancer risk in close to 100,000 atomic bomb survivors.
Focus on Populations
Hirohata champions public health in a nation where, he says, “Preventive medicine is not well appreciated.” He cofounded and became first president of the Japan Epidemiological Association, and led the government’s task force on cancer epidemiology. Educating the public is also Hirohata’s mission. “People are confused about what they should believe,” he says. “There is need for a public health expert to give good guidance.” That’s why he helped develop a television program on cancer prevention, seen since 1997 by an estimated 10 million Japanese viewers.
Hirohata, who himself is fit and slender, warns that countries experiencing an obesity epidemic will suffer grave repercussions. In the United States, for example, where “portion sizes are huge,” he says that cutting out snacks, sweets, and liter-sized sodas would help Americans avoid overweight and its consequences, which include diabetes and heart disease.
A Community of Nations
Hirohata’s work is far from finished. “I’m still young at heart,” he asserts with a smile.
Karin Kiewra is editor of the Review and Associate Director of Development Communications at HSPH.
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