Professor Helen Rees of the University of the Witwatersrand, the fifteenth recipient of the Award since its inception, is the founder and Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health & HIV Institute (Wits RHI), the University’s largest research institute which also serves as a WHO and UNAIDS Collaborating Centre in reproductive health and HIV and as a SA Medical Research Council Collaborating Centre in HIV and TB. Rees is a Personal Professor in the Wits Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, a Honorary Professor in the Department of Clinical Research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Honorary Fellow of Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge.
Professor Rees is internationally renowned as an expert in HIV prevention, reproductive health and vaccines and is one of South Africa’s best known women scientists. In 2001 she was made an Officer of the British Empire for her contribution to global health and was the first recipient of the Department of Science and Technology’s ‘Distinguished Scientist Award’ in recognition of her ‘outstanding contribution to improving the quality of life of women’. Other accolades followed: the ASSAf ‘Science for Society Gold Medal’ (2011), the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s International Heath Clark Lectureship (2011) , the South African Medical Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award (2012) and Wits University’s Vice-Chancellor’s Research Award (2012).
For the past twenty years, Professor Rees has been involved in research aimed at documenting, understanding and preventing new HIV infections among young women. The highest burden of the global HIV epidemic is in sub-Saharan Africa where there is a strong feminisation of the epidemic, with women comprising the majority of infected individuals (57%) and a disproportionate number of HIV infected young people (15 to 24 years) are women and girls. In South Africa, young people in this age group have the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world and rates in young women are significantly higher than in young males. The Award will be used to further explore the relationship between hormonal contraceptives and HIV and other sexually transmitted infections among young women and this study, in conjunction with other research undertaken by Rees and her colleagues, will increase the understanding of possible biological drivers of HIV transmission among young women and inform future contraceptive and HIV prevention policies.
Rees commented “It is a great honour to receive the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship for my work in the field of HIV prevention among young women. This research field has evolved through the efforts of many outstanding colleagues both at the Wits RHI and in the South African and international research community. The research only succeeds because of strong community partnerships and the willingness of thousands of young women to participate in clinical studies. In making this award, the Oppenheimer family and the Memorial Trust are not only supporting the growth of South African science but are also contributing to solving one of the greatest research challenges of our time, that of HIV prevention.“