Leaving a legacy in child health

Now retired Professor Jerry Coovadia with the latest edition of his textbook Paediatrics and Child Health which was first published in 1984. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/ African News Agency (ANA)

Now retired Professor Jerry Coovadia with the latest edition of his textbook Paediatrics and Child Health which was first published in 1984. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/ African News Agency (ANA)

Published Apr 10, 2021


Durban - Retired academic and activist Professor Jerry Coovadia, 80, is probably most well known for his groundbreaking research in HIV-Aids transmission from mother to child.

But his textbook Paediatrics and Child Health is the book many paediatricians, doctors and medical students across the country still turn to when it comes to children's disease and illness ‒ and this week saw the latest and 7th edition coming out, 37 years after it was first published.

From his home in La Lucia, Coovadia said today the first edition of the book came out in 1984 and over the years has included research from universities across South Africa.

"Back in 1984, all the (medical) books we had were British. There was no textbook in the developing world which particularly addressed the problems of children in Southern Africa. That was the impetus to start writing, but I have to highlight it was a team effort and I collated research from many friends and colleagues from different universities,“ said Coovadia.

The book, which was published by Oxford University Press, was edited originally by Walter Loening, Coovadia's good friend and colleague at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, with later editions being edited by Dankwart Wittenberg.

Coovadia said that in general, the book had remained the same over the years, but had been updated on some subjects, such as drugs, which change over the years.

"I have always been happy with my research and I suppose it brings a transient personal glory, but this book has had an effect which I hope will be much more lasting," said Coovadia.

He grew up in the Warwick Triangle area of Durban, near the Indian market. He attended Sastri College and could often be spotted in the Brook Street library.

Starting his undergraduate years at the University of Natal, he moved to India to continue studying medicine in Bombay. It was during this time his political activism was awakened. In 1965 he moved back to Durban and started working at King Edward Hospital. He went to the United Kingdom in 1974, gaining his MSc in immunology at the University of Birmingham, and worked for a year at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.

Returning to South Africa, he rejoined the department of paediatrics at the (then) University of Natal doing research on the immunology of measles in children. He rose from associate professor to professor and then became professor and head of paediatrics and child health in 1990. From there, Coovadia was appointed the Victor Daitz Chair in HIV/Aids Research and director of biomedical science at the Centre for HIV/Aids Networking (HIVAN) at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine.

During his activist years, Coovadia was a prominent member of the United Democratic Front and worked closely with other activists, as well as taking part in the preliminary discussions and negotiations at Codesa (Congress for a Democratic South Africa).

He is internationally recognised for his breakthrough research in HIV/Aids transmission from mother to child, particularly on the subject of breastfeeding. Coovadia said that at one point, 40 babies out of 100 mothers would be infected with HIV/Aids, but they managed to reduce this to one baby out of every 100 mothers.

"Mother to child transmission has almost been wiped out," he said, adding that careful treatment and antiretrovirals now available “should prevent transmission from mother to child."

Coovadia said his greatest enjoyment during his long academic career came from when he was teaching. He has taught in medical, nursing and allied health professions as well as supervising numerous doctoral students.

Having worked for many years in the area of infectious diseases, particularly children’s diseases such as measles, whooping cough, tuberculosis and polio, Coovadia described the Covid pandemic as "terrible to see", having lost family and friends to the virus in the last year.

He and his wife have both been vaccinated and Coovadia said: "Coronaviruses have been around for a long time, but I've never seen a disease like Covid-19.“

He added that Covid in children was mostly mild, but could be worse if there were other underlying conditions such as tuberculosis.

He said that pneumonia and gastroenteritis still head up the list of children’s most serious ailments, while HIV-Aids will remain a challenge.

The Independent on Saturday

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