Eminent SA HIV researcher dies from COVID-19-related complications

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Eminent HIV researcher Gita Ramjee died from COVID-19-related complications at a Durban hospital last week, the most high-profile victim of the disease in South Africa to date, reports Business Day. Ramjee was fundamental to the global effort to develop microbicides – vaginal gels or creams designed to protect women from HIV – and deeply involved in HIV vaccine research. “She was involved in almost every major HIV prevention trial on microbicide … and defined her niche in developing technologies for women,” said Salim Abdool Karim, director of the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in SA.

Karim was head of the SA Medical Research Council (MRC) when Ramjee joined in 1996. She rose through its ranks to become director of its HIV prevention research unit before taking up the role of chief scientist at the Aurum Institute. Ramjee’s work focused on women in KwaZulu-Natal.

The report says she was the recipient of numerous awards for her research, including the Outstanding Female Scientist award of the European Development Clinical Trials Partnership, the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2012 International Microbicide Conference, and the 2017 MRC Scientific Merit Award gold medal.

“Gita was well known for the efficiency and quality of the trials that were run at her unit, and for the insights that she brought to the research,” said Richard Hayes, professor of epidemiology & international health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

Aurum Institute CEO Gavin Churchyard said Ramjee firmly believed in health as a fundamental human right. “The world has lost a bold and compassionate leader in the response to HIV,” he said.

Peter Godfrey-Faussett, senior science adviser, UNAIDS writes:

Gita is an extraordinary testament to resilience and determination. She was born in Uganda and escaped from the Idi Amin regime. She continued her schooling in India and then went to university in the UK. There she met her future husband, a South African, also of Indian heritage. She moved to the Transvaal with him, but hated the segregated life, which contrasted so obviously with the more open society she had found in the UK. So, they moved to Durban, which suited them better, and she began to build the two pillars of her life – her family and her career.

Her career as a strong leader of research on HIV prevention, specifically on women, particularly underprivileged women and sex-workers, has brought her global acclaim… To me, she was always a friendly face and someone to meet and talk to, not only about the science, but also about our sons and grandsons, London, Durban and beyond.

The COVID-19 wave is breaking over us now, and its power is awesome. Gita was a very early casualty of the African epidemic because she was a global superstar. Her death is a stark warning. Millions of poor people living in southern and eastern Africa, many of them living with HIV, are now facing a devastating challenge. The weak health and social systems, the dependence on piece work, the crowded housing, the lack of water and electricity all make it a horrible prospect.

The death toll will rise steeply, in part because of direct infections with the virus, but even more so because of the impact on the overstretched health systems and weak social protection safety nets. How are the millions of scared people living in crowded, shared accommodation and dependent on their daily wages to buy food expected to maintain physical distance?

Gita believed in and fought for the rights and welfare of sex workers. Back in 2007, she told the Guardian newspaper, “The stories they used to tell us were horrific. That’s when I knew I wanted to be involved in the prevention of HIV infection in women.” I know that she would want us to step up and meet the challenge of COVID-19, not only as a public health crisis, but even more so as a challenge to inequity, poverty and lack of global solidarity.

“Professor Ramjee was renowned for her work on finding HIV prevention methods that were conducive to the lifestyles, circumstances and perceived risk factors that South African women face, as well as attempts to find an effective HIV vaccine,” Deputy President David Mabuza is quoted in an Al Jazeera report as saying.

“We have indeed lost a champion in the fight against the HIV epidemic, ironically at the hands of this global pandemic.”

Other tributes:
“She dedicated many years of her life to finding HIV prevention solutions for women,” Churchyard is quoted in a BBC News report as saying. Head of UNAIDS Winnie Byanyima said Ramjee’s death was a huge loss at a time when the world needed her most.

South Africa has the largest number of people living with HIV in the world.
The HIV researcher fell ill after returning to South Africa in mid-March from the UK, where she had been presenting at a symposium at the LSHTM. She held an honorary professorship at the LSHTM, as well as at the University of Washington and the University of Cape Town.

Churchyard said Ramjee would be greatly missed: “To have an African scientist, who is internationally recognised pass – really leaves a huge void for us. But Gita firmly believed in building capacity, in sharing knowledge and she did that. She leaves a tremendous legacy behind her and her work will continue. As an unrelenting fighter, unrelenting in her fight against HIV, against tuberculosis and now COVID-19. The last thing she would want us to do is to give up. We won’t give up, we must keep fighting and working to find solutions.”

Full report in The Times

UNAIDS material

Full Al Jazeera report

Full BBC News report

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