Two South African scientists, Salim S. Abdool Karim and Quarraisha Abdool Karim were last week awarded the maiden edition of the Olusegun Obasanjo Prize for their work on the use of a microbicide, called Tenofovir gel, to prevent HIV infection and genital herpes in women.
The award instituted by the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), an umbrella think-tank for scientists from across the continent was endowed in the name of former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, a patron of the academy.
Described by many of the renowned scientists that attended the prestigious event as the Nobel Science Prize on the continent, the winning couple were selected after weeks of intense debates and examination of works by hundreds of exceptional scientists who were nominated for the prize.
Salim Abdool Karim and Quarraisha Abdool Karim were honoured for their breakthrough in a vaginal gel that has significantly helped to reduced HIV infection rates in women in South Africa, a product of about 17 years of research.
In 2010, the couple’s research team demonstrated that 1 per cent Tenofovir gel reduced HIV acquisition by 39 per cent overall, and by 54 per cent in women, who used the gel consistently. Further, they showed that Tenofovir gel prevents genital herpes (Herpes Simplex Virus – 2), an incurable lifelong sexually transmitted infection which enhances the spread of HIV, by 51 per cent in women.
The study known as CAPRISA 004 is particularly significant as it is a global first in empowering women against HIV. Tenofovir gel, a pioneering HIV prevention strategy that women can control, is particularly important for young women, who can rarely negotiate condom use or faithfulness with their male partner.
AIDS and global health leaders have called the results “a game changer”, “a true breakthrough for AIDS prevention,” and “a significant milestone for women in the thirty year history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.” The finding was ranked among the Top Ten Scientific Breakthroughs of 2010 by Science.
Tenofovir gel is set to alter the future trajectory of the HIV epidemic. In South Africa alone, it is estimated that Tenofovir gel would avert 1.3 million new HIV infections and 800,000 AIDS deaths over the next 20 years. Once implemented on a broad scale, Tenofovir gel is set to save millions of lives and mark the turning point in global HIV epidemic.
The winners of the prize, Salim and Quarrisha Abdool Karim have made significant scientific contributions to HIV prevention and treatment. Salim S. Abdool Karim is Director of the Centre for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa.
Quarraisha Abdool Karim is Associate Scientific Director of CAPRISA and Professor of Public Health at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine at University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Both scientists are also professors in Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University in New York.
The Abdool Karims have published extensively in world renowned journals including Science, Nature, Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine.
They have, individually or jointly, received numerous prestigious awards and medals, including TWAS Prize in Medical Sciences and the Gold Medal award from the South African Academy of Science.