In recognition of her outstanding work to advance both HIV prevention research and the human rights of people affected by HIV, University of Cape Town (UCT) Professor of Medicine Linda-Gail Bekker has won the 2018 Desmond Tutu Award for HIV Prevention Research and Human Rights.
Named in honour of the popular South African cleric, who is a leading global advocate for HIV prevention and the dignity of all, the award was presented to Bekker at the opening plenary of the 2018 HIV Research for Prevention (HIVR4P) conference in Madrid, Spain, on 22 October.
The Tutu award is presented every two years to either an individual or an organisation.
University of Zimbabwe professor Z Mike Chirenje, HIVR4P co-chair, described Bekker as a “tireless and innovative leader of efforts to ensure effective HIV prevention for all”.
“From her clinics in the impoverished Masiphumelele and New Crossroads townships of Cape Town, to her role as chief operating officer of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation and in her capacity as immediate past president of the International Aids Society, Linda-Gail’s fearless advocacy and personalised models of care have saved lives and helped to break down barriers of stigma and discrimination in HIV prevention,” he said.
Bekker’s famously user-friendly clinics offer models of service that engage and welcome everyone, including young people, and especially young women and girls, men who have sex with men, and others traditionally overlooked by the health system, her citation said.
The mobile “Tutu testers” she has championed also take voluntary HIV testing, counselling and information to communities throughout South Africa.
“Linda-Gail’s fearless advocacy and personalised models of care have saved lives and helped to break down barriers of stigma and discrimination in HIV prevention.”
“Her clinics have been known to provide services such as babysitting and clothes washing to individuals who could not otherwise keep their appointments, and sports and computer literacy for young people using their services.”
Innovative prevention methods
In the research field, as UCT’s Professor of Medicine, Bekker has advanced efforts to integrate the diagnosis, treatment and care of HIV and tuberculosis, the leading global killer of people living with HIV.
She has also co-led international research studies to develop innovative new HIV prevention methods, including HIV vaccines, vaginal rings, and oral and injectable pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Recently, Bekker used her position as international scientific chair of the AIDS 2018 conference to speak on a global stage in support of increased financial and political support for HIV prevention research.
Chirenje’s HIVR4P co-chair Dr Susan Buchbinder, of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said Bekker reminds “us every day that the goals of stopping HIV and protecting the rights of everyone affected by the epidemic are inextricably linked”.
“Her belief in the dignity of all people is the key to her effectiveness – whether she is holding political leaders to account in international policy-making forums or working one-on-one with patients in the clinic,” she said.
Tutu is himself a previous recipient of the award (2014), along with Ambassador Deborah Birx, coordinator of the US Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS and director of the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar) in 2016.
Bekker said she was delighted and honoured, especially to follow in the footsteps of people of the calibre of Tutu and Birx.
“This award reminds us that, ultimately, all the work we do is to improve the lives and well-being of men, women and young people – fellow human beings everywhere – and that’s what really matters,” she said.
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