Heather Zar

Johannesburg - When Professor Heather Zar returned to South Africa after 1994 and started working as a medical officer and general doctor, all she wanted was to contribute to the country’s social upliftment. In particular, issues of child health concerned her.

This past week, her work received global recognition when she was presented with the 2018 L’Oréal-Unesco (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Women in Science Laureate for Africa and the Arab states in recognition of her wide-ranging contributions to child health.

The prestigious award is given annually to five women scientists worldwide, one from each continent. Speaking telephonically from Paris where the awards ceremony was held, Zar said: “Being in Paris among this community of women scientists is a wonderful privilege.

“It’s humbling to see the work that is going on around the world. But also the work that is done by up-and-coming talent is really inspiring”.

Zar, 54, is the chairperson of the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health and director of the Medical Research Council Unit on Child and Adolescent Health that specialises in the care of children with respiratory diseases such as asthma, tuberculosis and pneumonia.

Her work focuses on key illnesses that cause most childhood deaths and disease in Africa and globally, including childhood pneumonia, tuberculosis, HIV- associated disease and asthma.

Her work on childhood pneumonia has identified new methods for diagnosis and prevention and provided new knowledge on the causes and long-term impact.

“Our work is focused on some of the most crucial issues in child health particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, being childhood pneumonia, childhood TB and asthma. I think people forget how big the problem of childhood pneumonia is. Two children die each minute from pneumonia and we have a disproportionate burden in sub-Saharan Africa, which has 25% of the childhood population but 50% of the deaths. So we have a lot of work to do in terms of childhood pneumonia.”

She explains that asthma is an illness which people think affects only children in high- income countries but in fact, it is a common chronic illness in African children affecting one in five.

With TB there have been good advances in Africa, she says.

For the past 20 years or so they’ve been pioneering methods to improve diagnosis in children and primarily methods to detect the TB germs.

“We’ve also done work on different samples, like samples from the nose, mouth or urine, and then applying what also happens hand in hand within the development of very new techniques that allow the genetic material of TB germs,” she adds.

The Cape Town-based physician explains that once they can get samples from children, they are able to get them to the lab for the new molecular technique like Genexpert, which has been rolled out in South Africa.

“We can actually diagnose a fair proportion of children that way. I think there has been good progress in strengthening diagnosis of TB in children

"We need even better diagnostic tests and we continue to work on this area.”

Similarly they are still using old techniques in diagnosing pneumonia, and Zar says tests still need to be developed that would not only point out whether a child has pneumonia but could also determine if the child needs antibiotics.

Zar studied at Wits Medical School and started her paediatric training there. She left SA to specialise in paediatric and calmanisation in New York and Columbia (changes in the practice of medicine resulting from implementation of the Calman Hine report in the UK).

“And once democracy came back to South Africa, I was fortunate to come back.”

The mother of three works at Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town and did her PhD at the University of Cape Town after her return to South Africa.

“When I came back I worked as a medical officer and as a general doctor in the hospital and gradually was able to progress as a consultant and head of department. I’m fortunate enough to have a South African MRC (Medical Research Council) unit in child adolescent health.”

She’s been at Red Cross Children’s Hospital for 25 years and is now the head of the department of paediatrics.

“I have research sites in Paarl, in the Eastern Cape and collaborations throughout Africa now.”

As one of the two South African female scientists who were honoured at the awards ceremony for their groundbreaking research, she says she is grateful for the experience.

“It’s amazing and a great privilege. I see it as an acknowledgement of the work so many people have done. This is the result of many collaborations of the extraordinary work the team does on the ground. We work in communities, we work in hospitals, we cross public health, we work with laboratory sites.”

The Sunday Independent