Young Scientists

Quarraisha Abdool Karim: "I work in Africa on AIDS because it is a huge problem there"

Who are you?

I am Quarraisha Abdool-Karim. I’m associate scientific director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa

What is you scientific activity?

At CAPRISA, our focus is on HIV-AIDS and we basically try to answer two questions. How do we prevent HIV infection in young women? And how do we prevent people dying from HIV-TB co-infection? And in the context of the HIV epidemic in Africa, the single biggest challenge that we face in terms of preventing infection of HIV is the high rates of infection in adolescent girls and young women.

Why is it important for you to work in Africa?

If we take HIV, it is found in every country around the world. But a disproportionate amount of HIV, in fact 70 %, is in Africa. And I come from the province of Kwazulu-Natal, in South Africa, which is on the east coast, and here the epidemic is particularly severe. So my focus on AIDS is not only because it’s a global challenge, but because it’s very much a problem facing us in the part of South Africa where I live. And just some indication, is by age 16 in many communities, one in ten of the women are already infected by HIV. By age 20, it’s one in three. By age 25 it’s every other woman. And in fact, in Africa, about 35 % of the population is under the age of 35. And a big concern that we have is that you have HIV already starting to impact the population at a very young age, and a very young population. So it will have many implications beyond health and more in terms of what people will be able to do and this is common across subsaharan Africa. It’s a problem for us in Africa in that we have the majority of the infections there, we’ve seen a demographic transition in our population. We have lots of young people. And we need to be able to hold it that these young people can realize their potential and make their contributions to society in whatever facet or aspect of life.

What measures should African take to make sure that young scientists return to Africa?

Firstly I think, African governements need to invest more in science. I think that when African scientists go outside of Africa to study, it’s a very important opportunity. Because we learn about things in a different way, we learn about new things. But I also feel it’s a privilege to have that opportunity. And we have to, as people who have that opportunity, feel responsibility to come back to Africa and make a difference. But I think one it has to come from yourself that you want to make a difference. But governments can make that environment more supportive. And I feel we don’t value science enough. As governments in Africa we don’t invest enough. And our ability to transform Africa very depends on moving from ressource based economies to knowledge based economies. Knowledge based economies means investing in science, investing in knowledge generation. And I think those two things if Africans can maintain their curiosity, use science to bring about change and change the many many challenges that face Africa and be supported at a political level, then we will have a good formula for moving forward constructively.

Interview by Jean-Bruno Tagne

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