South Africa: Coronavirus - Colleagues Gutted By Death of 'Inspiring' HIV Scientist Gita Ramjee

The death of Professor Gita Ramjee who dedicated her life's work to the prevention of one virus - HIV - has left colleagues and friends gutted.

Ramjee fell ill after returning from a trip to England in the midst of the global novel coronavirus outbreak. A source, who declined to be identified, confirmed that she was diagnosed with Covid-19.

Unable to gather around Ramjee's grieving family to offer solace because of the lockdown in the country, all they can do is send messages of condolence and thanks for her life's work in the local and international scientific community.

The lockdown is aimed at preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"For me, what stands out about Gita, is her humility as a scientist," said Kanya Ndaki, communications director at The Aurum Institute, where Ramjee was the chief scientific officer for HIV prevention.

"She had these accolades, she had all these professorships, but she was always just so humble and down to earth," said Ndaki.

The Aurum Institute is part of the massive team that is helping the health sector to trace people who came into contact with those who tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The institute was also in the process of beginning its own research to help with the understanding of the coronavirus, which emerged in Wuhan, China.

"She was not one of those limelight people. But she always had time for journalists," said Ndaki, a former health journalist herself.

"I remember how she would fight for the rights of child participants in her studies. She was always vocal about that.

"It was a deep calling for her."

Their final work together was for International Women's Day, and one of Ndaki's tasks was to go over speeches that were prepared for delivery during this time. Ramjee's did not require any tweaking.

"She said: 'I strongly believe that my calling in life is to find methods that empower women to take control of their HIV prevention and reproductive health rights through informed choices'.

"She was so inspiring," Ndaki told News24.

President and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council, Professor Glenda Gray, confirmed on Tuesday that Ramjee had died.

"The world has lost a bold and compassionate leader in the response to HIV," said Professor Gavin Churchyard, Group CEO of the Aurum Institute.

"Gita Ramjee firmly believed in health as a fundamental human right. Her groundbreaking research in HIV prevention contributed to the global response to HIV and AIDS. Our thoughts during this difficult time are with her family, colleagues and the many people her life and work touched," he added.

Ndaki said her death hit the Ramjee family very hard.

The team is planning to have a video conference later on Wednesday but are all on the front lines supporting the healthcare sector and clinics during the crisis.

One of her last talks was a webinar hosted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on 17 March, to discuss HIV infection and common risk factors for HIV.

She spoke in depth, drawing on her decades of work on HIV clinical trials, after Dr Fatima Mir's presentation, on the micro detail of how HIV infections occur in South Africa.

Her research covered targeted intervention to stem the epidemic of HIV, with geo-mapping and gathering data on overlapping sexually transmitted diseases, and right down to towns where women are most vulnerable to HIV.

She noted that there were 214 000 new HIV cases in 2019 alone, with one third of the new infections in young women.

She advocated individual targeted counselling for women to prevent HIV, and noted the poor risk perception, partner dynamics, older men having sex with young women, and higher rates of intended or unintended pregnancy, as well as lack of partner notification and treatment.

She also noted that crime, unemployment, and a lack of basic health education contributed to prevalence, as she tried her best to find ways of protecting people. She also stressed that men need to be more involved in measures to prevent HIV.

Source: News24

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