GLENDA GRAY Break­ing THE HIV CODE

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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.

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. 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 worl­drenowned 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 HIV­pos­i­tive 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.

Professor Glenda Gray

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