The French government has recognised and honoured a former graduate of the University of Kwazulu-Natal’s Medical School for his contributions to science, medicine and research over the past three decades.
Durbanite Dr Fareed Abdullah was awarded the French National Order of Merit in February for his work as a clinical researcher and public health scientist, which has focused mainly on fighting HIV and TB. He will receive his commendation from the French president during an awards ceremony planned for June.
“This is not recognition of an individual but reflects the work of a slew of people working on fixing the problems of HIV and TB, over the past 30 years,” Abdullah said.
Sunday Tribune reports that the scientist has worked with French health officials and scientists for years, spending 2008 to 2011 in Geneva, Switzerland, at the Global Fund (the body that provides financial backing for the fight against HIV, TB and malaria).
“I am half Francophone. My wife of 30 years, daughter-in-law and two-year- old granddaughter are French-speaking,” said Abdullah, who added that when the COVID-19 pandemic broke, the French Embassy in South Africa often called on him to attend to members of its diplomatic corps who were ill.
Abdullah completed his internship at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital and thereafter worked for 16 years as the Western Cape’s Department of Health’s deputy director-general, during which time he started providing antiretroviral treatment in the public sector to HIV patients.
At the time, President Thabo Mbeki and then health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang classified ARVS as “toxic” and refused to provide the treatment, he recalled.
He moved to England as director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance (2006 to 2008) and then to the Global Fund, where his role revolved around HIV, TB and malaria funding to their African division.
In 2012 was asked to return to South Africa and head the National Aids Council, when he broke new ground.
“I set up a programme for sex workers, showing that 80% of them were HIV-infected and not given treatment. Through the programme we were able to reach and assist 35,000 sex workers, 50,000 black gay men in townships, and transgender women, the kind of people society neglects.”
Abdullah used his experience at the Global Fund to his advantage and was able to secure funding for the council, raising about R1bn a year to fund the council’s projects.
For the past five years, he has worked at the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC) as a director in their Aids and TB research office.
The Tribune reports that he also treated TB and HIV patients at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital twice a week, but was asked to focus on COVID-19 patients when the pandemic broke.
His work at Steve Biko led him to publish the first paper on the Omicron variant, describing that its disease severity was less than the previous variants.
“It drew worldwide interest. The genome sequencing team that announced the new Omicron variant scared the hell out of everyone. My paper came three weeks later, saying even though it looks like a freak horror variant, the disease presentation is milder.”
Abdullah is also chairperson of the SA National TB Think Tank and said that for the first time in 50 years, more effective TB treatment drugs were beginning to emerge.
“In the next four to five years, we will have a new vaccine after relevant tests are completed,” he said.
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