Taking the battle against HIV, TB to a whole new level

2012-10-10 00:00

A NEW era in the fight against HIV and TB dawned yesterday with the “anointing” of a new weapon stationed at the heart of both epidemics.

That weapon is a shining new research facility, called the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH), which was officially opened at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s medical school in Durban. With $40 million (R350 million) in funding coming from the U.S., the gleaming eight-storey edifice has been hailed as the next frontier in the global war against both diseases.

UKZN and the philanthropic Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), as founding partners, finally celebrated the culmination of turning 13 years of vision into reality.

And the pervading theme touched on by various speakers was one of hope, best expressed by the chairperson of the HHMI trustees, Kurt Schmoke, who said: “We are carried by the possibilities of hope … dare I say it, our hope is for a cure.”

Collaborators in the project have stated their goal is to use findings of scientific research conducted at K-RITH to drive new means of combating both diseases, while educating a new generation of young scientists.

The building covers 3 716 square metres and includes laboratories with special biosafety parameters to handle dangerous pathogens.

Durban was chosen to house the facility as it stood at the epicentre of both diseases. The university’s Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine’s reputation for outstanding HIV research also helped sway the decision, including the fact that four hospitals are located in close proximity to the site.

Official statistics put South Africa’s HIV population at about 5,7 million people, with many living in the province. TB is also rampant in KZN, with nearly two out of every 10 people in the province living with the disease.

Combined, the diseases have been devastating, a point that Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi dwelt on. “South Africa’s high TB burden has far-reaching implications, beyond the borders of this country,” said Motsoaledi, a former student of the medical school.

While a large American contingent attended the official opening, the flavour of the ceremony was distinctly African.

Renowned South African storyteller Gcina Mhlope did what she does best and regaled the audience with a tale about how the leopard used its spots to eradicate disease — a role she said the new institute was taking on.

UKZN vice-chancellor Professor Malegapuru Makgoba hailed as visionary the collaboration between the two academic institutions and quoted former U.S. president Franklin D Roosevelt: “When there is no vision, people perish.”

He said the investment would pay off and attract a new generation of bright young minds in time.

A two-day symposium hosted by K-RITH and showcasing HIV and TB research begins at the Hilton Hotel today.

• brett.horner@witness.co.za

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