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
“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
“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.