South African scientists win first Obasanjo science prize

The husband-and-wife team won a prize for work on HIV/AIDS Copyright: CAPRISA

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[NAIROBI] Two South African researchers have been awarded the inaugural Olusegun Obasanjo Prize for scientific discovery and technological innovation, for their work on HIV/AIDS and herpes prevention.

Salim S. Abdool Karim and Quarraisha Abdool Karim, a husband-and-wife research team from the University of Kwazulu-Natal, received the award earlier this month (10 November) for their work on the use of a vaginal microbicide gel containing tenofovir — the culmination of 17 years of research into microbicides. The gel was found to be 39 per cent effective in reducing HIV transmission, above the statistically significant result of 33 per cent.

They also found that it appeared to have a dual effect, protecting against herpes simplex virus-2.

The prizerewards African scientists who have made outstanding achievements in scientific discovery or technological innovation. It is named after former Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who attended the ceremony at the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) in Nairobi, Kenya.

Salim Abdool Karim told SciDev.Net: "Quarraisha and I are humbled to be the recipients of the Obasanjo Prize. We see this as an award not for us but for the success of a superb collaboration between the Center for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa; the University of KwaZulu-Natal,South Africa; Columbia University, United States;CONRAD; FHI 360 (formerly Family Health International); and Gilead Sciences.

"This award is an important milestone in my career as a scientist, and I am very thankful to the AAS for [it]," Karim added.

He said that women bear the brunt of the HIV epidemic in southern Africa and that tenofovir gel is the first prevention method to empower them directly to control the risk of HIV infection.

"I hope that this award will bring greater attention to the plight of the HIV epidemic for young women in Africa. We need greater efforts and greater resources to find ways to empower women to protect themselves against HIV infection in Africa," he said.

The prize comprises a certificate, a gold medal and US$5,000. Applicants’ research should be in the fields of biotechnology, energy, information and communications technology or materials science.

Berhanu Abegaz, executive director of the AAS, said that the prize will help motivate scientific research in Africa; encourage young scientists to prioritise high-quality, relevant science and technology; and maybe help keep young scientists on the continent.

Shem O. Wandiga, managing trustee at the Centre for Science and Technology Innovations, in Kenya, said the prize will motivate many Africans to do quality work that improves the lives of their people.

"With time it may turn out to be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for Africa," he said.