Newsmaker: Breaking the HIV code

2017-04-23 06:00
Professor Glenda Gray

Professor Glenda Gray

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Professor Glenda Gray is used to receiving accolades for her work in HIV prevention, but when Time magazine informed her that she had made it onto its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world, she was surprised.

“I couldn’t believe it ... Why me? I am just a scientist, after all,” she asked herself.

But Time’s list, which is now in its 14th year and recognises the world’s most influential people, saw something extraordinary in Gray that she had not realised in herself.

According to Nancy Gibbs, the magazine’s editor, this list is for extraordinary people.

“One way or another, they [the listed nominees] embody a breakthrough: they broke the rules, broke the record, broke the silence, broke the boundaries to reveal what we are capable of,” Gibbs said about the candidates.

Speaking to City Press on Thursday, Gray underplayed her global influence and recognition. “I consider myself a scientist who has a body of research work to do. All I want is to make a difference in this world by finding an HIV vaccine that works.

“I never expected Time magazine to list me as one of the 100 most influential people in the world for that,” she said.

In 2003, she and Dr James McIntyre were honoured with the Heroes in Medicine Award from the International Association of Physicians in Aids Care.

And, a few years ago, she received the highest honour the country bestows on its citizens, the Order of Mapungubwe, from President Jacob Zuma.

She has received these and other
awards for her life-saving research in preventing HIV transmission from mothers to children.

Gray has dedicated more than 30 years of her life to finding a way to prevent HIV infection for the world’s benefit. Her HIV research has contributed to South Africa having joined a growing number of countries in drastically reducing mother-to-child transmission.

But her work has not been without sacrifice.

The sacrifice

Gray worked long hours on her research, sacrificing time with her three children – two daughters and a son – to help reduce the number of mother-to-child transmissions of HIV in South Africa.

When that came under control, she turned her focus to finding an HIV vaccine, a solution needed by the entire world.

Looking back, Gray said: “I don’t know how my children would tolerate this madness. They suffered the most because I was never home. I dedicated myself and my time to my work because I was looking death in the face, with mothers and children dying every day.”

Fortunately, Gray’s children did not complain. They seemed to understand that she was trying to find a solution to benefit humankind.

Instead of whining about her constant absence, they chose to follow her example and buried themselves in their books.

Today, she counts her blessings as one daughter has completed a degree in medical anthropology.

The other qualified with a BA degree, and her excellent performance earned her a spot on the dean’s list at the University of Cape Town.

Her youngest, a 13-year-old son, loves science and seems to be following in her footsteps.

“I am proud of all of them because it means they used my absence to make something good out of the experience. They saw my hard work and it seems like it rubbed off on them.”

Although Gray hardly gets time to relax, when she has time off, she just wants to spend it with her family. However, that often does not materialise because her children tend to have assignments to complete. It doesn’t bother her, though, because it means they are working hard.

Medical science is my life

Despite having missed milestones in her children’s lives, Gray said medical science research was her life’s work.

“All I know is medical science and research. It is the evidence you need to change the world. It is the key to changing the minds of ordinary people and policymakers.”

Gray graduated in 1986 as a medical doctor from the University of the Witwatersrand. In 1992, she qualified as a paediatrician from the College of Medicine SA, based in Johannesburg.

Her career highlights the dedication, commitment and passion required to address the health issues facing South Africans.

In 1996, she and McIntyre established the Perinatal HIV Research Unit in Soweto, where they developed a world-renowned unit focused on HIV prevention and treatment.

Seven years later, at a shameful time in our country’s history – when HIV and Aids denialism dominated the headlines and HIV-positive mothers were being denied life-saving antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) – Gray and McIntyre were at the forefront of HIV research, trying to prove that ARVs could prolong the lives of sufferers in South Africa.

Their efforts at combating these challenges earned the two the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights.

Reflecting on that tragic era, which claimed thousands of HIV-positive parents and infected children, as well as impoverished orphaned children, Gray said they focused on giving surviving children the chance “to grow up free of ill health. You give them hope to define a destiny of their own.”

With that time now passed, Gray is focusing on finding an HIV vaccine that will ensure that those who are HIV negative remain safe.

“My dream is to see an HIV-free generation in South Africa. We may not have a vaccine yet, but I believe that, someday, we will find it,” she said.

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