Winning Women: For the health of a nation

Professor Helen Rees is the founder and executive director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute. She recently received
the R1.5m Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award. Picture: Sethembiso Zulu Kampande
Professor Helen Rees is the founder and executive director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute. She recently received the R1.5m Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award. Picture: Sethembiso Zulu Kampande

The elegantly restored office of Professor Helen Rees – housed in a 110-year-old Hillbrow, Johannesburg, building – is light, bright and warm on a cold winter’s day.

The trim and fit, internationally renowned medical doctor whose titles and awards might fill a wall, has nothing hanging on hers save some exquisite African art.

She leaps to her feet, hand outstretched, smiling and welcoming in spite of a punishing work schedule.

Rees has just returned from days spent at an Aids conference in Durban and is jetting off to Washington, DC, at the end of our interview.

She’ll return to South Africa via her alma mater, the UK’s University of Cambridge, where she has now been made a fellow. As such, she’ll pass on some of her extensive knowledge through a lecture on HIV.

Rees, who has been involved in HIV-prevention trials with microbicide gels and antiretroviral drugs, knows what she’s talking about, for South Africa has by far the largest Aids-treatment programme in the world, with 3 million people on antiretrovirals.

“We have 6 million people who are infected,” says Rees, who goes on to talk about the World Health Organisation (WHO) possibly doing away with waiting for CD4 counts to drop before treating people.

“The evidence shows that starting treatment as soon as someone is found to be HIV positive is good for their health and also reduces the likelihood that they will transmit HIV to a partner.”

Rees also explains the urgent need to improve existing HIV-prevention efforts. “The continuing high incidence of HIV means we need new and better HIV-prevention technologies, combined with a better understanding of how we can get communities to use these technologies.”

Rees speaks normally, not high-flown academic-speak, and heads Wits University’s largest research institute, the Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, with 550 staff.

“We started with five back in 1994,” she recalls. She talks about the growth of the organisation being very much a team effort, with many of her colleagues being outstanding international experts in their own fields who have expanded the scope of the institute into new areas of work.

Last week, she received the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, which is granted annually to scholars of the highest calibre.

The annual award, worth R1.5 million, is given to someone involved with cutting edge, internationally significant work that advances knowledge, teaching, research and development in South Africa.

Rees ticks all those boxes, and more. She chairs the WHO working group on Ebola vaccines, its International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on polio, and the WHO African Technical Advisory Group on immunisation.

Rees has worked closely with the WHO in the field of vaccines and immunisation for many years. She believes vaccines are one of the greatest public health interventions available.

“We saw with the Ebola outbreak the immediate global demand for the development of a vaccine. This shows that the public understands the potential vaccines offer in our efforts to reduce mortality from infectious diseases.”

The recent award is just one of numerous global and local awards of one of our country’s leading scientists – in addition to her many leadership roles, which include chairing the Medicines Control Council.

Rees talks about pending changes to legislation that governs drug regulation and the importance of expanding the remit of a new drug regulatory authority to categories of medicines not previously considered.

Rees started working in the global health arena when she became president of the SA Planned Parenthood Federation in the late 1980s.

It was a position she held for a decade, during which she took the federation from being an exiled organisation back into international acceptance after 1994.

“In 1994, there was global interest in both South Africa, and the field of sexual and reproductive heath. At that time, I undertook an assessment of South Africa’s reproductive health services with the WHO and that was my starting point in global health.”

She describes her presence on the international stage as due to “luck and timing”.

She doesn’t mention it was her passion for women’s rights and their health that landed her in the field in the first place. Nor does she mention it was her childhood interest in gender, race and human rights that eventually turned her into a medical and political activist.

Rees was born into a Welsh family, with a history embedded in the mining unions and the Methodist revival in the Welsh valleys.

It was probably that genealogy that saw the young Cambridge medical student protesting against cruise missiles, Springbok rugby tours and the lack of women’s health rights in the 1970s in the British capital.

She and South African doctor Fazel Randera left in 1980 for Zimbabwe to work in Harare Central Hospital. They moved to South Africa in 1984, where she headed paediatrics at the Alexandra Township Clinic and worked with the SA National Medical and Dental Association, an anti-apartheid organisation of doctors and dentists.

At the time, Alexandra Clinic provided the only health facilities for the people of Alex. It was run by like-minded doctors who opposed apartheid health services.

She recalls the war in Alexandra with youths hiding in the clinic while the military surrounded the facility.

Three grown-up children later, she and her husband relax by having a rich family and social life, taking their dogs for walks and going to gym.

Rees is honoured to have helped South Africa develop its health policy and says the next challenge is how to realise equitable healthcare for all. Having access to quality health services should be regarded as a human right, “but achieving this in the context of the rising costs of care and increasing demands on services is the next great global challenge”.

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