CityPress - - Business -

he 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 aca­demic­s­peak, 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.”

Have a vi­sion and prin­ci­ples, and work hard to re­alise them. My par­ents.

My adult chil­dren, from whom I con­tinue

to learn.


There have been too many to

There are mo­ments when you have one chance to do the right thing. Iden­tify these op­por­tu­ni­ties and ac­tively make the right de­ci­sion.

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