Health-e (Cape Town)

29 April 2013

South Africa: Wits Faculty of Health Science Professor Receives South Africa's Highest Honour

Photo: Leslie Reti
Fighting mother to child HIV transmission

On the 27th April 2013 President Jacob Zuma honoured Wits Faculty of Health Sciences Professor Glenda Gray with South Africa's highest honour - the Order of Mapungubwe - for her life-saving research focusing on the mother to child transmission of HIV.

The Awards Ceremony was held at the Presidential Guest House in Pretoria.

“It is a great honour and I am humbled to receive an award like this, which I accept on behalf of the dedicated team of scientists and clinicians with whom I work and who share the vision of eliminating paediatric HIV,” says Gray who is a world authority on HIV and the Head of the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU) at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.

She says that the next ten years are going to produce vaccines, microbicides and even cures for HIV that were never thought possible.

Her long and difficult research journey into HIV started in 1993 when she graduated as a paediatrician from the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences. “A severe and horrific epidemic had emerged and I witnessed many babies and children dying of HIV in public hospitals in Johannesburg,” recalls Gray.

“There was no choice but to become involved in HIV because every third child in the ward at Bara was infected with the virus, and it was the most common cause of death in children admitted. It was a terribly depressing state of affairs and as a doctor you felt helpless because your goal is to help people live.”

That year she started doing research into mother to child transmission and in 1996 she co-founded the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences- PHRU at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

“Back then many people thought I was mad to make a career of clinical research in HIV, which was a very new field at the time.”

Soon after it was established, the PHRU expanded its portfolio to include HIV prevention research such as vaccines; interventions to prevent heterosexual transmission and HIV treatment. Under Gray's directorship it is now a 400-strong research unit that has achieved international recognition for its research and results in the care, treatment and prevention of HIV in the mother-to-infant, adolescent and adult.

The PHRU is now in its 17th year, and Gray is hopeful that the long, dark years are behind them.

“It is a great relief to be where we are now because it was a battle for the first ten years with antiretroviral (ARV) drugs price not being affordable in South Africa and interventions still being researched.”

“What is really wonderful today is that some of the earliest children I delivered in 1993 who were born with HIV are now in matric and doing well on therapy. If they keep taking all their medicines the sky is the limit and they will be able to lead full lives until they are old.”

She is equally positive about the HIV vaccines and interventions they are working on at present. “Within the next ten years we will have an HIV vaccine and/or a microbicide that women can use. Scientists are also working on a cure through, for example, gene therapy. We are going to see results we never thought possible,” says Gray, adding that she is “very lucky to have a career in HIV because it offers you the opportunity to change the course of events in the lives of people all over the world. It's such a devastating epidemic and the more we understand it, the more we can control it and do good.”

Professor Gray is one of five University of Witwatersrand professors who received National Orders this year.

Professor Glenda Gray is a National Research Foundation A-rated scientist and a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). She has received multiple awards for her work, she has an Honorary Doctorate from Simon Fraser University in Canada and in 2012 she was elected as a member of the Institute of Medicine of the United States National Academy of Sciences. Members worldwide are elected for their excellence, commitment to service and professional achievements.

Note:
The Order of Mapungubwe is South Africa's highest honour. It was instituted on 6 December 2002, and is granted by the President of South Africa, for achievements in the international arena that have served South Africa's interests.

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