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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 KwaZu­luNatal 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.”

Linda Gail Bekker

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