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Oppenheimer prize awarded to Rees

- By Wits University

Wits is proud to announce that one of its top scientists, Professor Helen Rees, is the latest recipient of the prestigious Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award for 2014.

The announcement was made by the Board of the Oppenheimer Memorial. Rees becomes the fifteenth recipient of the Award since its inception and the fourth from Wits.

The Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award was initiated by the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust in 2001 to commemorate the Trust’s founder and all he stood for, especially his efforts to support human and intellectual development, advance scholarship and encourage innovative ideas.

The Trust has a long tradition of investing in education and in other areas and many beneficiaries have gone on to make important contributions to South African public life. The Fellowship builds on and expands this tradition and is the Trust’s premier award with a monetary value of R1.5 million. It is a special investment to encourage and acknowledge excellence in scholarship in all its forms.

Candidates from all disciplines compete annually for the Award and it is granted to scholars of the highest calibre who are engaged in cutting-edge, internationally significant work that has particular application to the advancement of knowledge, teaching, research and development in South Africa.

Professor Rees is the founder and Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI), which also serves as a WHO and UNAIDS Collaborating Centre in reproductive health and HIV and as a SA Medical Research Council Collaborating Centre in HIV and TB. Rees is a Personal Professor in the Wits Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, an Honorary Professor in the Department of Clinical Research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Honorary Fellow of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge.

Rees received her medical degree and a masters in Social and Political Science from Cambridge in the late 1970s and worked in Harare Central Hospital as a registrar in paediatrics and neonatal medicine. She moved to South Africa in 1984 where she headed Paediatrics at the Alexandra Clinic and was an anti-apartheid health activist with the National Medical and Dental Association.

Professor Rees is internationally renowned as an expert in HIV prevention, reproductive health and vaccines and is one of South Africa’s best known women scientists. She serves in leadership roles in both national and international structures and currently chairs the SA Medicines Control Council, the WHO/PATH Committee on Maternal Influenza Immunisation, the WHO Working Group on Ebola Vaccines, the WHO’s International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on Polio and the WHO African Technical Committee on Immunisation.

She is also a member of the Scientific Committee of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases and two ministerial committees on immunisation policy and health sector data.

In 2001 Professor Rees was made an Officer of the British Empire for her contribution to global health and was the first recipient of the Department of Science and Technology’s Distinguished Scientist Award in recognition of her ‘outstanding contribution to improving the quality of life of women’ (2006).

In the same year, she received a lifetime achievement award from Amanitare, a pan-African NGO dedicated to the rights of women and children, and was elected as a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf).

Other accolades followed: the ASSAf Science for Society Gold Medal (2011), the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s International Heath Clark Lectureship (2011), the South African Medical Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award (2012) and Wits University’s Vice-Chancellor’s Research Award (2012).

For the past 20 years, Professor Rees has been involved in research aimed at documenting, understanding and preventing new HIV infections among young women. The highest burden of the global HIV epidemic is in sub-Saharan Africa where there is a strong feminization of the epidemic, with women comprising the majority of infected individuals (57%) and a disproportionate number of HIV infected young people (15 to 24 years) are women and girls.

In South Africa, young people in this age group have the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world and rates in young women are significantly higher than in young males. The Oppenheimer Award will be used to further explore the relationship between hormonal contraceptives and HIV and other sexually transmitted infections among young women.

Observational studies suggest that there may be an increased risk of HIV acquisition among young women using DMPA, an injectable progestin contraceptive, but more work needs to be done to establish if this is true and if it is, what the biological and behavioural drivers for increased acquistion might be. This study, in conjunction with other research undertaken by Professor Rees and her colleagues, will increase the understanding of possible biological drivers of HIV transmission among young women and inform future contraceptive and HIV prevention policies.

“It is a great honour to receive the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship for my work in the field of HIV prevention among young women. This research field has evolved through the efforts of many outstanding colleagues both at the Wits RHI and in the South African and international research community. The research only succeeds because of strong community partnerships and the willingness of thousands of young women to participate in clinical studies.”

“In making this award, the Oppenheimer family and the Memorial Trust are not only supporting the growth of South African science but are also contributing to solving one of the greatest research challenges of our time, that of HIV prevention,” said Rees.

Concluding the Award presentation, Nicky Oppenheimer, the Chair of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, said: “We are delighted to confer this honour on Professor Rees and offer her the opportunity to advance this important work. This is an innovative project that seeks to fill critical gaps in our understanding of the reasons why young people in South Africa have the highest HIV rates in the world. We wish her and her colleagues every success.”

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