CityPress - - Business -

One of the hap­pi­est mo­ments for Dr Glenda Gray, in a life packed with awards and plau­dits for her re­search and ex­traor­di­nary courage, came re­cently when a mother showed her a pic­ture of her 21-year-old child, and said: “He is alive.”

When she was preg­nant the woman was in­fected with HIV at Chris Hani Barag­wanath Hospi­tal at a time when Aids de­nial­ism was grow­ing.

Gray and Dr James McIn­tyre had nev­er­the­less founded the peri­na­tal HIV clinic at Barag­wanath, one of the first in South Africa to of­fer test­ing and coun­selling for preg­nant women, in the face of mount­ing op­po­si­tion from Aids de­nial­ists.

In 1996, the clinic be­came a re­search unit of Wits Univer­sity, the Peri­na­tal HIV Re­search Unit.

For­tu­nately, the woman was treated to pre­vent mother-to-child trans­mis­sion of HIV.

Since then the num­ber of ba­bies born with HIV has dropped from 600 000 a year to 150 000.

Also in 1996, Gray, a pae­di­a­tri­cian who had set out to be­come a doc­tor not a re­searcher, pre­sented her first re­search pa­per to an international Aids meet­ing.

To­day Gray is not only a full pro­fes­sor at Wits’ depart­ment of pae­di­atrics, which is part of the fac­ulty of health sci­ences, but is also pres­i­dent of the SA Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil (SAMRC).

Her re­spon­si­bil­i­ties are enor­mous yet, as she has done through­out her 54 years of life, the doc­tor throws her­self whole­heart­edly into the task at hand.

She wants to grow the next gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists be­cause she says she wor­ries “about the age­ing co­hort of South African sci­en­tists”.

“We need young peo­ple, not jaded old ones like me”, she adds with a chuckle.

“I have to find my suc­ces­sor and I want that to be a black African sci­en­tist.”

Gray hopes her legacy will be her role in as­sist­ing in the trans­for­ma­tion of the re­search coun­cil.

Fur­ther­more, she wants to ex­tend re­search into other ar­eas, in­clud­ing strokes, ma­ter­nal deaths, di­a­betes, heart dis­ease and can­cer.

“We have huge med­i­cal is­sues in South Africa, not just HIV.”

Hav­ing said that, she’s head­ing re­search into an HIV vac­cine for peo­ple who are ex­posed to it through sex­ual trans­mis­sion.

“We need to pro­tect them from be­ing in­fected. If it works in adults then we will rapidly use them in young peo­ple – and then in­fants who need pro­tec­tion from their moth­ers’ HIV.”

Gray is hop­ing that by 2021 her team will have the re­sults of three dif­fer­ent kinds of ap­proaches to an HIV vac­cine “that will ei­ther be the break­through or will help us rapidly leapfrog what we know into some­thing more ef­fi­ca­cious”.

She re­gards her SAMRC job as her “na­tional ser­vice”.

“But if I stay in it too long then I might be­come ir­rel­e­vant in re­search. And it is sci­ence that gets me out of bed every day for it’s my first call­ing. It makes me feel vi­brant.”

One of the high­lights in her life oc­curred when Nelson Man­dela re­sponded to a no­tice she, as head of an Aids com­mit­tee at Sa­cred Heart Col­lege in Ob­ser­va­tory, Jo­han­nes­burg, had put into satchels.

The for­mer pres­i­dent’s grand­chil­dren were at the school, as were Gray’s daugh­ters.

“No­body wanted to come to our meet­ings. There were just four of us in a class­room when a Mercedes-Benz drew up and Madiba got out. We spoke to him for an hour about Aids in chil­dren. Just us four.” In 2002 she was pre­sented with the Nelson Man­dela Health and Hu­man Rights Award.

Gray is the fifth of six chil­dren born to a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer fa­ther and book­keeper mother in the min­ing town of Boks­burg on the East Rand.

When she started medicine at Wits in 1980 she be­came one of two white med­i­cal stu­dents to join the Health Work­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion.

The as­so­ci­a­tion’s aim was to de­seg­re­gate South Africa’s hos­pi­tals. She could not have imag­ined at the time that post-1994, in a demo­cratic South Africa, she would have to wage a strug­gle against in­sti­tu­tion­alised HIV and Aids de­nial­ism.

Her alma mater, Wits, de­scribes the ex­tremely hum­ble mother of three as hav­ing, “bro­ken new bound­aries, re­de­fined sci­en­tific ex­cel­lence and pi­o­neered ground­break­ing med­i­cal re­search that has shaped global com­mu­ni­ties and saved lives”.

Work tip: Men­tor: Books: In­spi­ra­tion: Wow! mo­ment: Life les­son:

Sci­en­tists need an open mind. Ex­per­i­ments may not work out the way you want them to.


PER­SON OF IN­FLU­ENCE Pro­fes­sor Glenda Gray

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