Another gong for South Africa’s HIV champ

Linda-Gail Bekker Picture: Roger Sedres/ImageSA
Linda-Gail Bekker Picture: Roger Sedres/ImageSA

At just three years old, now respected HIV researcher, physician and community activist, Linda Gail Bekker knew what she wanted to be when she grew up – a doctor.

Not just any doctor but a geriatric doctor, helping old and frail people be as comfortable as possible in the final years of their lives.

“I was very passionate about trying to make the exit as comfortable and as pleasant as possible for old people … so that was really my dream,” she said.

But her life didn’t work out like that.

For the past 30 years or so, the now 56-year-old has been working in the field of HIV and Aids, as well as tuberculosis (TB), involved in the treatment and provision of it and in researching innovative prevention methods.

Recently she was honoured at the world’s only scientific meeting dedicated exclusively to biomedical HIV prevention – the HIV Research for Prevention (HIVR4P) conference, held this year in Madrid, Spain – with the 2018 Desmond Tutu Award for HIV Prevention Research and Human Rights.

The award is named in honour of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu for his global advocacy for HIV prevention and the dignity of all people.

It is presented every two years to an individual or organisation that has worked in an “outstanding manner to advance both HIV prevention research and the human rights of people affected by HIV”.

After receiving her award, Zimbabwe-born Bekker said: “I came to South Africa already qualified as a doctor and I went to work in northern KwaZulu-Natal to pay back a bursary to the government. This was in the late 1980s and the HIV and Aids epidemic was taking off,” she said.

“I wanted to be a geriatrician but the HIV epidemic was breaking out all around us and two things happened: I realised this very important, consuming, compelling challenge was coming to South Africa and I needed to get involved. What particularly struck me was seeing young people suffering and families being torn apart.

“But also I realised I needed to be more than a clinician and would need to help to find solutions to these problems, so it dawned on me that I needed to be a researcher.”

So back to school she went, this time specialising in infectious diseases, doing her PhD in HIV and TB at the Rockefeller University in New York.

She returned to South Africa in 2000 and to the township communities in Cape Town.

“I’m a closet social worker, so that was the other problem that I had – a huge passion for people – and the human tragedy of the Aids epidemic was very real. In the early 2000s we really were stuck on treatment and rightly so – people were dying.

“We formed wonderful partnerships with the Treatment Action Campaign and the government against pharma [pharmaceutical companies] to drive ARV [antiretroviral] drug prices down.

“But later we realised the real work that needed to be done had to be in communities and in the clinics and so we were instrumental in finding the money to build the first dedicated antiretroviral clinic known as Hannan Crusade in Gugulethu Day Hospital,” she said.

But Bekker and her team noticed people were still coming to the clinic but they were receiving treatment too late. That’s when the mobile “Tutu testers” were born.

The mobile clinics she championed are lifesavers. They specialise in voluntary HIV testing, counselling and informing people throughout the country.

They even provide babysitting and clothes washing help for those who would not otherwise keep their appointments; and sports and computer literacy services for young people.

When they noticed that teenagers weren’t attending the clinics, Bekker championed a prototype youth centre with recreation and health services, built in Masiphumelele, Cape Town. There are also mobile adolescent services available.

Bekker, also professor of medicine at the University of Cape Town, has advanced efforts to integrate the diagnosis, treatment and care of HIV and TB, leading international research studies to develop innovative HIV prevention methods, including vaccines, vaginal rings for prevention, and oral and injectable pre-exposure prophylaxes.

HIVR4P co-chairperson Zvavahera Mike Chirenje of the University of Zimbabwe said Bekker’s “fearless advocacy and personalised models of care have saved lives and helped to break down barriers of stigma and discrimination in HIV prevention”.

Bekker said the award “gets to the heart of why we do this work”.

“It isn’t the scientific accolade, it isn’t the published papers – it’s all about the people.

“I’m incredibly honoured. There are so many people in this field who are passionate and have committed their lives to doing fantastic work. So to be singled out is to have been made to feel very special. And it’s an opportunity for me to give a shout out to everybody who has worked to reduce the impact of this epidemic.”

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