DURBAN - Well before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the fight against HIV/AIDS had lost its position in society as a uniquely urgent global crisis, says University of KwaZulu-Natal Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Nana Poku.
A long time leader in the fight against the AIDS pandemic, Poku made the remarks as he received accolades for being “an exceptional leader owing to his involvement in solving the world’s biggest challenges and making an extraordinary, positive impact in society”.
The honours, by the international Perrett Laver institute, come on the eve of Poku taking up a new part-time role as the chairperson of the Frontline Aids board of trustees, beginning next month.
The institute describes itself as “a leading international executive search firm that seeks to identify outstanding leaders, bringing diversity and vision to purpose driven sectors in over 70 countries across the globe”.
The recognition related to Poku’s sterling work as the head of the UN Commission on HIV/AIDS and Governance in Africa at the Economic Commission for Africa, Perrett Laver said in a statement.
Poku had also worked in various capacities with global bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank, the UN Development Programme and UN Programme on HIV/AIDS.
“(Poku) is one of the world’s leading experts in research and policy on the political economy of health and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Arabella Chichester, Perrett Laver’s global head of the non-profit and social impact practice.
Poku said: “Given the scale, speed and urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic, (our work against HIV/Aids) could hardly have not been impacted. The problem is compounded because even before Covid-19 struck, the fight against AIDS had lost its position as a uniquely urgent global crisis. We can see that AIDS must now fight for political prioritisation and scant resources with other large global issues, not least climate change.”
It would be sometime before the full effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the AIDS response and the dynamics of HIV were known, he said.
“Undoubtedly, lockdown measures will have had both negative and positive impacts, such as reduced sexual health clinic visits, but also a reduction in risky social interactions. However, the largest impacts will likely be negative, owing primarily to diverted health budgets and highly stressed health systems.
“Globally, there will be a long ‘tail’ of postponed procedures and operations, which will, in all probability, continue to apply pressure on health budgets and healthcare systems overall.
“We were all astonished by how quickly a safe and effective vaccine could be developed by scientific and medical establishments in several parts of the world. The potential of mRNA – that is, genetically encoded vaccines to combat not only infectious diseases but also non-communicable ones such as cancer – has been with us for a number of years, but the Covid-19 vaccine has been a real breakthrough.
“We could be on the verge of a very exciting new chapter in medicine and human health. Currently, an extended human trial is under way on a malaria vaccine that has, to date, shown 77% efficacy. What a transformative, exciting development that would be,” said Poku.
In relation to his new role, he said the Frontline AIDS board of trustees could play an important role in assisting the executive by reviewing and renewing the organisation’s strategy and its means to implement it in an ambitious but sustainable manner.
“I am enthusiastic about enlarging and strengthening Frontline AIDS’ partnership network, with a particular view to the various means by which local organisations can succeed in preventing the spread of HIV.
“Frontline AIDS has a unique role as a partnership network, placing resources where they are most needed and best applied, with local expertise and knowledge. There is no one technique, or programmatic response that will work across the variety of communities worst affected by AIDS.
“As marginalised populations are most at risk, it matters greatly that Frontline AIDS concentrates on those communities and on utterly fundamental matters such as accessible sexual and reproductive health clinics, prevention programmes and HIV testing,” Poku said.