Perseverance and hard work always win out says leading HIV researcher

13 June 2014 | Story by Newsroom
Professor Salim Abdool Karim addresses the audience at the opening graduation ceremony after receiving an honorary doctorate in science in medicine.
Professor Salim Abdool Karim addresses the audience at the opening graduation ceremony after receiving an honorary doctorate in science in medicine.

Good science, hard work, dogged determination and perseverance led to the breakthrough that allows women to protect themselves from HIV, said Professor Salim Abdool Karim upon receiving an honorary Doctor of Science in Medicine from UCT.

"It took us 18 years, eight magnificent failures, millions of dollars [and] thousands of hours of research to show that we could find the technology to empower women to protect themselves against HIV," Abdool Karim said at the opening ceremony of the June graduation on Thursday 12 June 2014.

Abdool Karim and his wife, Dr Quarraisha Abdool Karim, are credited with discovering the effectiveness of tenofovir gel in preventing both HIV and genital herpes. They embarked on this journey to safeguard women from HIV infection after establishing that "young women (16-24 years) share a disproportionate burden of the HIV disease in South Africa and most other countries in Southern Africa".

According to Abdool Karim the traditional prevention tools, the so-called ABCs '“ abstinence, be faithful and use a condom '“ are not effective in protecting young women involved in sexual relationships with older men, explaining that HIV is not as prevalent among young men aged 16-24 years and that women must therefore be contracting the disease from older men.

He related the many failures encountered by him and his team '“ the opposition they received from the scientific fraternity, exemplified by a damning article in the prestigious journal Nature titled HIV trial doomed by design.

Abdool Karim and his team ploughed ahead and in 2010 presented their results at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna to wide acclaim. Their achievement was among the City Press Top 10 Scientific Breakthroughs of 2010, proving that perseverance and hard work do pay off.

Record number of PhDs

This year's two-day graduation season will see a bumper crop of 110 PhD candidates graduating (compared to 2013's cohort of 75). They are part of the total of 1 508 graduates (2013: 1 374) who will be capped over the four ceremonies.

Though the mid-year graduation may be more modest than its December sibling, it's no less of a celebration and has always been marked by the predominance of postgraduate degrees awarded. The Faculty of Science produced the lion's share of 42 PhDs, followed by the Faculty of Health Sciences with 29, and the Faculty of Humanities with 20.

The 10h00 ceremony on 12 June was devoted to the Faculties of Commerce, with 759 students graduating (2013: 612), and Health Sciences, with 154 students graduating (2013: 138).

UCT Book Award

At the morning ceremony on 12 June, the UCT Book Award was presented to Professor Nicoli Nattrass (School of Economics), while Professor Alan Morris (Department of Human Biology) collected a Meritorious Book Award.

In her book, The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back, Natrass argues that AIDS conspiracy beliefs (such as HIV being deliberately created by scientists) are strongly mediated by local history and culture. This will be the second time that she scoops this award; the first was in 2005 for her book, The Moral Economy of AIDS in South Africa.

In his book Missing & Murdered, Morris debunks the "CSI effect" caused by the unrealistic expectations that popular television raises in the minds of the lay public and specifically in the victims of crime.

Watch the graduation ceremony and Professor Salim Abdool Karim's address for yourself:

Story by Abigail Calata. Image by Michael Hammond.

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