Gita Ramjee, a prominent HIV researcher working in South Africa, has died of COVID-19.
Ramjee, 63, died Tuesday at a hospital in Durban, South Africa, The New York Times reports. She had become ill after visiting her sons in London.
Ramjee was known for leading research on HIV prevention methods that could be controlled by women, such as vaginal microbicides. She became dedicated to this effort in the 1990s after her work put her in touch with sex workers “who told chilling stories of economic hardship, high-risk behavior and men who were indifferent to using protection,” the Times reports.
“It opened my eyes. … That’s when I knew I wanted to be involved in the prevention of HIV infection in women,” she told The Guardian in 2007.
Ramjee, who was of Indian descent, was born in Uganda but moved to India with her family when she was in her teens, as dictator Idi Amin expelled all Indians from the country. She attended college in England, where she met her husband, Pravin Ramjee, who was from South Africa. She settled in South Africa with him and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Natal in Durban.
At the time of her death, Gita Ramjee was chief specialist scientist at the Aurum Institute, where she worked on HIV prevention efforts. She was previously chief specialist scientist and director of the South African Medical Research Council’s HIV Prevention Unit and adjunct professor in the Department of Global Health at the University of Washington. She was also an honorary professor at the University of Cape Town and in the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
She won several awards for her work. In 2018 she received the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership/European Union Outstanding African Female Scientist Award. She cochaired the Microbicide Conferences in 2006, 2008 and 2010 and in 2012 was honored with the conference’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
“I am deeply saddened at the news of the passing of Gita Ramjee,” said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS, in a press release. “She was an eminent scientist who dedicated her life to HIV prevention for women and girls in Africa. Her death is a huge loss at a time when the world needs her most. My condolences to her family, friends, and colleagues.”
“The world has lost a bold and compassionate leader in the response to HIV,” added Gavin Churchyard, group CEO of the Aurum Institute. “Gita Ramjee firmly believed in health as a fundamental human right. Her groundbreaking research in HIV prevention contributed to the global response to HIV and AIDS. Our thoughts during this difficult time are with her family, colleagues, and the many people her life and work touched.”