Two South African healthcare veterans appointed to F…

In the field of health and human rights, Dr Fareed Abdullah and Professor Helen Rees have been a constant and dedicated presence in South Africa and the international community for over 25 years. They have shaped health policies and responses, going through periods of turbulent change in the form of the HIV/AIDS crisis and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a decision by French President Emmanuel Macron on Feb. 7 and announced on Feb. 22, Abdullah and Rees were named Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Merit Français and Officier de l’Ordre National du Merit Français, respectively.

The National Order of Merit was created in the middle of the 20and century as a universal order rewarding distinguished merit and honoring individuals from all walks of life, according to the website of the Grand Chancellery.

For Rees, founder and executive director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, the appointment is recognition for her “outstanding medical career focused on sexual and reproductive health,” according to a letter to Rees from Aurélien Lechevallier, the French ambassador. in South Africa. Lechevallier further acknowledged the assistance Rees had provided to the Embassy team through regular communication on the Covid-19 situation and vaccination strategy in South Africa.

Abdullah, Director of the Office of AIDS and Tuberculosis Research at the South African Medical Research Council, has been named a Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Mérite in France for his involvement as a clinical researcher and public health specialist in the fight against HIV and tuberculosis, according to a letter addressed to Abdullah by Lechevallier.

Professor Helen Rees

According to Rees, being named an Officer of the French National Order of Merit is recognition of a lifetime’s work. For the past 15 years, she has been active in healthcare in South Africa and the wider African region and the global healthcare space.

Beginning her career as a clinical physician in pediatrics, Rees has always had an interest in reproductive health. She returned to South Africa from Zimbabwe in the early 1980s and worked at the Alexandra Clinic in Johannesburg, becoming more involved in reproductive health.

“So, of course, we were approaching 1994 and I was working with ANC health structures,” Rees said. “In the early 1990s, we were developing a health policy for a democratic South Africa. So I took part in the elaboration… of what was then called the “women’s health policy”.

After 1994 – at a time when HIV was emerging as an issue – Rees was tasked with establishing a research entity on women’s reproductive health. The small entity of about five people grew into what is now the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI), made up of more than 2,000 people.

Wits RHI’s focus has expanded from sexual reproductive health to encompass HPV vaccines, pediatric and maternal vaccines, and more recently, Covid-19 vaccines. The institute also began to focus on climate change and health.

“With all the research we do… it is very relevant to local people, both in South Africa and in the African region,” Rees said.

Rees believes that she, like many others who work in medicine, is driven by a love of work and the opportunity to make a difference.

“I think a lot of people… who work in medicine do it because there’s a huge love for work very often, but particularly in public health and global health,” she said. declared. “A lot of people who work in this space are experts in their respective fields, but they are also very often activists.”

Having worked in Alexandra Township during apartheid in the 1980s, part of what Rees and his colleagues did was protect young people and hide them in the clinic to prevent them from being arrested.

“It’s a very vivid memory,” Rees said. “The kind of militant side is that you can’t – if you care about communities of people – you can’t separate that from… the extension of what people are going through.”

On her nomination to France’s National Order of Merit, Rees pointed out that she received the award not only because of her own actions, but because she was lucky enough to work with teams of excellent people. .

“One individual alone does not achieve change,” Rees said. “So, I mean, I would salute the staff of Wits RHI, who are superb, superb, totally committed scientists, but also the people who work on many of these global committees and councils that I work on, [who] are all such committed individuals. And it’s the teams, it’s the teams that really create the successes, not the individuals.

Dr. Fareed Abdullah

Abdullah worked on the front lines during two major health crises in South Africa – the HIV/AIDS crisis of the early 2000s and the recent Covid-19 pandemic. While HIV, as a chronic, slower-growing disease, differs significantly from Covid-19, during the peak in HIV mortality between 2000 and 2004, hospitals faced struggles similar to those that marked the course of the last two years. These struggles were mostly related to capacity, efficiency, supplies and logistics, Abdullah said.

“My involvement with HIV goes back – honestly, I’m not kidding – back to 1988,” Abdullah said. “And even then there was a group of us who really thought, ‘This is going to be a big epidemic,’ you know. The first studies came out, I went to my first conference on the AIDS in Montreal in 1989.

While at the Western Cape Ministry of Health – first as Chief Director of Health Care between 1996 and 2000, then as Deputy Director General between 2001 and 2006 – Abdullah facilitated the provision of antiretrovirals (ARV) and short-course zidovudine treatments for HIV. in the province.

Abdullah described his decision to stand up to the national government by providing ARV treatment in the Western Cape at a time when the government was refusing to do so nationwide as one of the standout ventures in his career.

“I was young, brave and fearless. So, you know, we kind of grew up in the UDF [United Democratic Front], I was involved in the anti-apartheid movement,” Abdullah said. “So we had the very good moral compass, we had the very good political education. We seriously wanted to build a new society, and so it was pretty easy to tell right from wrong, whether it was coming from your leaders in government, whom you loved, wanted and revered… or whether it came from any another kind of right-wing government.

He added that it only took so much medical knowledge to know that providing ARVs was the right thing to do from a medical point of view.

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Abdullah again took an active role in managing an ongoing crisis. Since April 2020, he has been a member of the Steve Biko University Hospital Outbreak Response Team. This has involved working as a clinician in Covid-19 services, as well as helping with fundraising and the provision of Covid-related equipment, staff and infrastructure.

“There are a lot of things you can do from one hospital. I did a lot of fundraising for Steve Biko’s gear,” Abdullah said, adding that at some point during the pandemic he received R100 million from the Solidarity Fund, with which he and a team were able to buy equipment for 16 hospitals in Gauteng. .

“So the previous time I used my authority as a senior official to drive something. This time, you know, I used my experience in a hospital to impact the bigger picture. “, did he declare.

There are many moments in Abdullah’s long career that stand out for him, but one of the most significant is joining Zackie Achmat, then head of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), in taking Nelson Mandela on a tour of a facility. of ARV treatment at site B in Khayelitsha. It was 2002, and for Abdullah it was like a turning point. “If Mandela is on your side, you know, who can defeat you? he said.

Sibongile Tshabalala, the national chairman of TAC, said working with Abdullah over the years has been a great honor, especially in light of his long relationship with the organization.

“He helped us a lot in terms of the issues that we need to understand in terms of treatment, understanding the budget and knowing what’s going on, especially in the field of medicine,” Tshabalala said.

“From time to time when we face challenges, especially those affecting people living with HIV, we always engage with it. And even recently when we were hit with Covid he was one of the doctors who kept us informed telling us what to do, how to deal with Covid which was really helpful. DM

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