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The most sacred currency: Life

- Wits University

Professor Glenda Gray tells Health Sciences graduates that medical history can be made in South Africa by doctors at Wits.

Gray is President of the South African Medical Research Council. She is a Wits alumna and a Professor of Paediatrics at the University. As a children’s doctor and a scientist she has pioneered research into the treatment of HIV treatment over 30 years, particularly in mother-to-child transmission.

“When I first started treating children in South Africa with ARVs, I saw them go to school, get a Matric and go to university and get degrees. And that’s why I’m so proud to be a doctor in South Africa. You’re doing something in the most sacred currency: Life.” 

When Gray graduated from Wits Medical School in 1986, she had heard of this new disease: “The ‘slim disease’ they called it, but HIV was theoretical,” she recalls. “It was only in 1988 that I came face to face with HIV.”

This face was that of a white male who was a formidable, brilliant surgeon. “He was the first person I met who was HIV positive. He died a year after I left the ICU at Baragwanath Hospital, in 1989 – seven years before drugs became available,” says Gray.

In the 1990s the HIV war-zone changed focus, to children at Baragwanath Hospital where Gray worked. She co-founded and led the Perinatal HIV Research Unit at the hospital and began researching treatment as well as practicing as a doctor.

“Faced with HIV infection with infants, I designed a study to prevent mother-to-child transmission through breast feeding,” she says.

The research was controversial but ground-breaking and it demonstrated that early initiation of treatment reduced infection in infants. “It led to women being able to make an informed choice about either breast-feeding or opting for forumula. It changed behaviour,” says Gray.

Gray began studying vaccines for HIV in the mid-2000s. She wants a vaccine developed by African scientists in Africa and she hopes it comes out of Wits. “The clinical development of an HIV vaccine remains my dream,” she says.

“Our Medical School is one of the greatest on the continent – a trailblazer,” she says, adding that the first black female doctor, Mary Susan Malahlela, graduated from Wits 70 years ago.

“Education is the strongest weapon with which to change the world’,” says Gray, quoting Nelson Mandela. “From Wits you are very well equipped with that education.”

Gray concedes that the spectrum of disease today differs from when she graduated. However, the burden of disease remains huge and unequal.

“We need new minds and new innovations to address the collision of communicable and non-communicable diseases. We need to find solutions locally that can have global impact,” she says. “You will deal with people who will die. You will diagnose promising young people with cancer, but you will also breathe life into people and give them treatment so that they can return to their families.”

Gray spoke at the graduation ceremony for the Faculty of Health Sciences on 5 July 2016.