Winning Women: Cracking the HIV code

Aug 06 2017 06:00
Sue Grant-Marshall

PERSON OF INFLUENCE Professor Glenda Gray. Picture: Leon Sadiki

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Johannesburg - One of the happiest moments for Dr Glenda Gray, in a life packed with awards and plaudits for her research and extraordinary courage, came recently when a mother showed her a picture of her 21-year-old child, and said: “He is alive.”

When she was pregnant the woman was infected with HIV at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital at a time when Aids denialism was growing.

Gray and Dr James McIntyre had nevertheless founded the perinatal HIV clinic at Baragwanath, one of the first in South Africa to offer testing and counselling for pregnant women, in the face of mounting opposition from Aids denialists.

In 1996, the clinic became a research unit of Wits University, the Perinatal HIV Research Unit.

Fortunately, the woman was treated to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

Since then the number of babies born with HIV has dropped from 600 000 a year to 150 000.

Also in 1996, Gray, a paediatrician who had set out to become a doctor not a researcher, presented her first research paper to an international Aids meeting.

Today Gray is not only a full professor at Wits’ department of paediatrics, which is part of the faculty of health sciences, but is also president of the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC).

Her responsibilities are enormous yet, as she has done throughout her 54 years of life, the doctor throws herself wholeheartedly into the task at hand.

She wants to grow the next generation of scientists because she says she worries “about the ageing cohort of South African scientists”.

“We need young people, not jaded old ones like me”, she adds with a chuckle.

“I have to find my successor and I want that to be a black African scientist.”

Gray hopes her legacy will be her role in assisting in the transformation of the research council.

Furthermore, she wants to extend research into other areas, including strokes, maternal deaths, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

“We have huge medical issues in South Africa, not just HIV.”


Work tip: Follow your passion. Never think you are stupid. Be curious.

Mentor: We were unlucky in South Africa that there was a diaspora and so many of us never had mentors.

Books: I like magic realism and authors such as Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

Inspiration: Watching a vet help a cow to calve. I decided aged six to be a doctor.

Wow! moment: Spending an hour, almost alone, with Nelson Mandela.

Life lesson: Scientists need an open mind. Experiments may not work out the way you want them to.

Having said that, she’s heading research into an HIV vaccine for people who are exposed to it through sexual transmission.

“We need to protect them from being infected. If it works in adults then we will rapidly use them in young people – and then infants who need protection from their mothers’ HIV.”

Gray is hoping that by 2021 her team will have the results of three different kinds of approaches to an HIV vaccine “that will either be the breakthrough or will help us rapidly leapfrog what we know into something more efficacious”.

She regards her SAMRC job as her “national service”.

“But if I stay in it too long then I might become irrelevant in research. And it is science that gets me out of bed every day for it’s my first calling. It makes me feel vibrant.”

One of the highlights in her life occurred when Nelson Mandela responded to a notice she, as head of an Aids committee at Sacred Heart College in Observatory, Johannesburg, had put into satchels.

The former president’s grandchildren were at the school, as were Gray’s daughters.

“Nobody wanted to come to our meetings. There were just four of us in a classroom when a Mercedes-Benz drew up and Madiba got out. We spoke to him for an hour about Aids in children. Just us four.” In 2002 she was presented with the Nelson Mandela Health and Human Rights Award.

Gray is the fifth of six children born to a mechanical engineer father and book-keeper mother in the mining town of Boksburg on the East Rand.

When she started medicine at Wits in 1980 she became one of two white medical students to join the Health Workers’ Association.

The association’s aim was to desegregate South Africa’s hospitals.

She could not have imagined at the time that post-1994, in a democratic South Africa, she would have to wage a struggle against institutionalised HIV and Aids denialism.

Her alma mater, Wits, describes the extremely humble mother of three as having, “broken new boundaries, redefined scientific excellence and pioneered ground-breaking medical research that has shaped global communities and saved lives”.

wits university


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