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IHME professor named first health measurement winner of prestigious innovation award

SEATTLE For the first time, a prestigious technical innovation honor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will go to an expert in health measurement: Abraham Flaxman, an Assistant Professor of Global Health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington (UW).

Since 1999, MIT's Technology Review has honored the world's top innovators under the age of 35 (TR35), in fields such as biotechnology, software, and energy. Until this year, the TR35 judges have not named an innovator in health measurement. Dr. Flaxman was selected from more than 250 nominations by a panel of expert judges and the editorial staff of Technology Review. Past winners include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

"Abie's technical innovations in the field of global health have been game changing in our ability to measure health and health interventions," IHME Director Dr. Christopher Murray said. "He has and continues to be at the forefront of pioneering methods that improve our ability to measure health outcomes and the effectiveness of interventions that address the world's greatest health challenges."

Nowhere is this more important than in the upcoming Global Burden of Disease (GBD) 2010 Study. Dr. Flaxman is the youngest member of the core team for the ambitious study that aims to provide the most comprehensive assessment to date of the burden from death and disability for more than 300 diseases, risk factors and injuries. Dr. Flaxman advanced a new way of disease modeling that allows researchers to combine all of the world's data on prevalence, incidence, remission, and mortality and produce consistent estimates of the way diseases progress through the population, as a function of age, time, sex, and geography. When the GBD study is published, it will give governments and health program funders the best picture yet of how the world has advanced or fallen behind in efforts to improve population health.

"We are able to understand what is truly causing the greatest amount of mortality and disability in the world because of technical advancements that can be traced back to Abie scribbling on a white board in his office," said Dr. Mohsen Naghavi, Associate Professor of Global Health at IHME and one of the lead researchers on the GBD project.

Dr. Flaxman also has made significant advancements in verbal autopsy methods for gathering health data in low-resource settings. His machine learning algorithm for computer-certified verbal autopsy takes the results of a health interview of relatives about a recently deceased person and automatically determines the cause of death. He also created a stock-and-flow model for tracking the distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria. The results are updated annually and included in the World Health Organization's World Malaria Report.

The advancements Dr. Flaxman and colleagues have made in data-driven data quality audits (D3QA) were recently recognized at the "Symposium on Computing for Development." Their publication on the development of the D3QA tool won the best-paper award. The tool can be used to ensure that health data and other data gathered from household surveys are accurate. It is currently being used in research aimed at estimating mortality from war-related causes in Iraq.

Dr. Flaxman has accomplished all of this in just four years. He was on track to join the legions of computer scientists who staff technology giants such as Microsoft and Amazon. While working at Microsoft Research in 2008, he applied for an IHME Post-Graduate Fellowship. His extraordinary work as a Post-Graduate Fellow propelled him to being hired as a UW faculty member.

"The world is not lacking in health data, and yet certain basic information has never been quantified," Dr. Flaxman said. "I realized four years ago that I could use computational algorithms to solve some of these measurement challenges in global health. And I am incredibly honored to have been recognized by the TR35 judges for this work."

Dr. Flaxman will discuss his work alongside other TR35 honorees at the EmTech MIT 2012 conference at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, October 24-26. All the TR35 winners for 2012 will be featured in the September/October issue of Technology Review and online at

Contact: William Heisel
Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation

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