Updated 14 November 2017

UCT prof one of only 5 women in world to win prestigious award

A South African university professor has won a prestigious award for her wide-ranging contributions to child health.

Heather Zar, a physician and scientist, has been declared one of the 2018 L'Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Laureates.

Zar has been recognised for the work on child health in Africa and triumphed above several other opponents from the Middle East and Africa.

Saving children's lives

The prestigious aware is awarded annually and contestants are chosen from Africa and the Middle East, Europe, Asia-Pacific, North America, Latin America and the Caribbean – one contender per region.

This is in recognition of her wide-ranging contributions to child health, which have improved – and saved – children’s lives across the globe, as well as helping to shape international policy.

Zar is the Head of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Director of Paediatric Pulmonology and the Director of the South African Medical Research Council Unit on Child and Adolescent Health at Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital at the University of Cape Town. She has conducted extensive research in child lung health, ranging from pneumonia and asthma to TB and HIV-associated lung diseases.

In a statement issued by UCT, Zar said it is humbling to be counted among such amazing women scientists, and a wonderful acknowledgement of the work they have been doing in child health over many years. 

"The aware reflects the extraordinary teams and people I am fortunate to work with and the strong collaborations that we have built," said Zar.

Respiratory illnesses are a few of the major causes of mortality and are incredibly debilitating illnesses affecting children worldwide. These illnesses are also considered serious complications in HIV-infected children. Zar has made invaluable contributions in epidemiology, diagnosis, prevention and management of respiratory illnesses, which has resulted in reductions in childhood mortality around the world.

Joins past laureates

Zar won the American Thoracic Society's World Lung Health Award in 2014 and is also known for her innovation in the development of a low-cost alternative for asthma spacers – using a simple 500ml plastic cold drink bottle.

Possibly her most important work has been establishing the Drakenstein child health study. This unique birth cohort study is among the first in Africa to investigate comprehensively the early life determinants of child health and the link between early life illness and development of chronic disease. The information obtained from studies like this provides new knowledge to inform strategies for improved prevention and treatment of childhood illnesses.

This body of work has had a big impact on child health, improving management and prevention of childhood illnesses, and changing policy and international practice guidelines, including those produced by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Zar now joins the likes of past laureates Valerie Mizrahi, Jennifer Thomson, Tebello Nyokong, Jill Farrant, and Quarraisha Abdool Karim – the only other South African women in science who have won the prestigious award.

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