Empowering women to prevent HIV infection in Africa

30 March 2016


Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim working in her lab. © L'Oréal Foundation
Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim working in her lab.
© L'Oréal Foundation

Until we have eradicated AIDS by finding a vaccine or a cure, then I think my job is not done” exclaimed Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim as she accepted a l’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award last week. The award recognizes her profound contribution to the understanding of HIV infection and spread, as well as her relentless efforts to empower women to help prevent HIV infection in Africa.

36.9 million people live with HIV infection worldwide, and the epidemic is still spreading: 2 million people became infected with HIV in 2014. Professor Abdool Karim devoted the last 25 years to HIV research; her work has provided new insights into how the HIV epidemic spreads and impacts adolescent girls and young women in Africa. Her deep knowledge of the science and of the people affected by HIV/AIDS in her native South Africa, which has the highest rate of infections in the world, has underpinned her determination to put prevention in the hands of women, particularly teenagers and young women. In 2002, at the height of AIDS denialism in South Africa, she and her husband co-founded CAPRISA, the Centre for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa.

 © L'Oréal Foundation HIV infection prevention initially rested solely with men, for instance, whether they chose to use condoms. It was recognized that infection prevention needed to be put directly in the hands of women and that ideally an antiinfective gel, a microbicide, was needed. After two decades of unsuccessful efforts, many believed that it couldn’t be done.

Professor Abdool Karim persisted in the quest for an anti-HIV gel for use by women before, during and after sex, and led the team that finally demonstrated that antiretroviral drugs could prevent the sexual transmission of HIV. The CAPRISA 004 study showed that gel containing the antiviral tenofovir reduced the risk of infection by HIV in women by 39%. Today she continues to study HIV prevention technology options that will give women in high risk populations, sustained protection through slow release, long action products.

I would encourage young women who feel passionate about changing the world and making a difference to pursue a career in science” said Quarraisha Abdool Karim at the French Academy of Sciences, where all five laureates presented their research. The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme was founded in 1998 with a simple aim: to ensure that women are fairly represented at all levels in science. Each year, the programme’s award is presented to 5 outstanding women researchers in recognition of scientific excellence and their potential for leading the global community in positive, productive directions.

 © UNESCO / Pilar Chiang-Joo I hope to inspire more young people!” said Professor Abdool Karim, explaining that the recognition of such awards comes with great responsibilities as well.  The disparities between men and women in science are still considerable. A manifesto for women in science was launched in Paris at the close of Thursday’s L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award ceremony, to draw attention to the need to ensure gender parity in science. Join the movement for women in science, sign the manifesto.