Durban - A FORMER graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Medical School was honoured by the French government for his contributions to the world of science, medicine and research.
Dr Fareed Abdullah’s work as a clinical researcher and public health scientist, which has been focused mainly on fighting HIV and TB for more than three decades, led to him landing the French National Order of Merit in February.
Abdullah will receive his commendation from French President, Emmanuel Maçron, during an awards ceremony planned for June.
Abdullah, who was raised in Overport, Durban, appreciated the French gesture but doesn’t believe the award was solely his.
“I think this is not recognition of an individual but reflects the work of a slew of people working on fixing the problems of HIV and TB, over the last 30 years.”
He feels his French connections might have had something to do with him earning the recognition.
“I have been working with French health people and scientists for a long while now and I spent three years (2008 to 2011) in Geneva, Switzerland, at the Global Fund (the body that provides financial backing for the fight against HIV, TB and malaria).
“I am half Francophone. My wife of 30 years, daughter-in-law and 2-year-old granddaughter are French-speaking” said Abdullah.
When the Covid-19 pandemic broke, the French Embassy in South Africa often called on him to attend to members of their diplomatic corps who had fallen ill.
“Officials at the embassy asked for my CV and that’s how it ultimately led to my nomination for the award.”
After completing his internship at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital (Johannesburg), he then spent 16 years in Cape Town, and became the Western Cape’s Department of Health’s deputy director-general (2001 to 2006).
That’s when he started to provide antiretroviral treatment in the public sector to HIV patients.
Thabo Mbeki was president at the time and together with the then health minister (Manto Tshabalala-Msimang), they classified ARVs as “toxic” and refused to provide the treatment, Abdullah recalled.
“I started providing antiretrovirals to pregnant women and adults. That brought me into close friendship with the Treatment Action Campaign and their leadership, including Zackie Achmat (world renowned for his HIV/Aids activism).
“We started to strategise with Doctors Without Borders and the local Health Department to up-scale treatment in the province and get the country to change its policy, and it did in 2004. But it was a big fight.”
Abdullah said he was heavily criticised by his bosses and was put under a lot of pressure, but he stood his ground.
“The coup de grace was getting Nelson Mandela on our side.
“There was a moment when I helped Mandela put on a HIV T-shirt in front of 1 000 people who were on ARVs in Khayelitsha.”
He moved to England where he worked as the director in the International HIV/AIDS Alliance (2006 to 2008) then to the Global Fund, where he had the important role of directing HIV, TB and malaria funding to their African Division (41 countries).
He also worked with some Francophone countries, because he could speak French.
When he was asked to return to South Africa and head the National Aids Council (2012 to 2017), Abdullah broke new ground.
“I set up a programme for sex workers, which showed that 80% of them were HIV infected and not given treatment.”
“Through the programme we were able to reach and assist 35 000 sex workers, 50 000 black gay men in townships and transgender women, the kind of people that society neglected.”
Given his experience at the Global Fund, Abdullah used this to his advantage and was able to secure funding for the council
“I used to raise about R1 billion a year to fund the council’s projects,” he said.
For the past five years, Abdullah has worked at the SA Medical Research Council as a director in their Aids and TB research office again.
He also treated TB and HIV patients at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital twice a week, but he was asked to focus on Covid-19 patients when the pandemic broke.
His work at Steve Biko led him to publish the first paper on the Omicron variant, describing that its disease severity was less than the previous variants.
“I published a paper on it and it drew worldwide interest.
“The genome sequencing team that announced the new Omicron variant scared the hell out of everyone. My paper came three weeks later, saying even though it looks like a freak horror variant, the disease presentation is milder.”
Abdullah is also the chairman of the SA National TB Think Tank and said for the first time in 50 years, more effective TB treatment drugs were beginning to emerge.
“In the next four to five years we will have a new vaccine after relevant tests are completed,” Abdullah promised.