Royal Geographical Society Honours Top UKZN Scientist

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College of Health Sciences Professor and Senior Faculty Member at the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), Professor Frank Tanser, has been awarded a prestigious Royal Geographical Society Back Medal for conducting seminal research that has shaped national health policies in developing countries.

Tanser is a medical geographer and infectious disease epidemiologist who has pioneered the use of geographical information systems in the field of HIV epidemiology. To date he has published more than 170 articles in the world’s top journals. He was one of the founding members of the Africa Centre for Population Health (now AHRI). For the past 20 years, he has worked in northern KwaZulu-Natal in a rural area devastated by the HIV epidemic. His research on the population-level impacts of the antiretroviral therapy (ART) roll-out led to wide-reaching and rapid changes to government policy on the design and implementation of ART programmes in South Africa. It includes:

•   A seminal study published in Science in 2013 that showed that nurse-led and decentralised HIV antiretroviral treatment programmes in rural areas could be successful in reducing HIV transmission This was one the key factors in shifting treatment guidelines from HIV treatment based on immune status to a “treat all” approach even in HIV hyper-endemic rural African contexts

•   His research on the influence of concurrent sexual partnerships on the spread of HIV infections (published in the Lancet in 2011) led to fundamental changes in programmes targeting such partnerships

•   His research on the geospatial epidemiology of HIV was the first to reveal clear “corridors of transmission” in a typical rural, hyper-endemic population; paving the way for enhanced structuring and rapid delivery of HIV interventions to the most vulnerable populations.

Upon receiving the news of his award, Tanser said: ‘I am absolutely delighted and deeply honoured to receive this prestigious award, which I accept on behalf of my amazing team of researchers and collaborators. It has been a huge privilege to study the HIV epidemic in one of the world’s most severely affected rural communities and to witness first-hand the turning of the tide against this terrible disease. I want to thank my wonderful family for their unwavering support over the past 20 years. Without their unconditional support, none of this work would have been possible.’

The prestigious medals and awards presented by the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) recognise excellence in geographical research and fieldwork, teaching and public engagement. They are presented annually to individuals who have made outstanding achievements. Recipients join a prestigious list which includes Sir Alexander Burnes, David Livingstone, Alfred Russel Wallace, Captain R. Scott and Sir David Attenborough. The Back Medal is named after the notable Arctic explorer Admiral Sir George Back. It was first awarded by the Royal Geographical Society in 1882 and recognises applied or scientific geographical studies which make an outstanding contribution to the development of national or international public policy.

Africa Health Research Institute Director, Professor Deenan Pillay, said: ‘This accolade is thoroughly deserved. I am delighted that the seminal epidemiological work conducted at AHRI over the past 20 years – which has had such a major impact on health policy in the region – is being recognised in this way.’

Professor Busisiwe Ncama, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Health Sciences, congratulated Tanser. ‘You deserve this wonderful achievement for the amazing contribution you make to impoverished communities burdened with the HIV epidemic in KwaZulu-Natal. We are so proud of you,’ she said.

Words: MaryAnn Francis and Hannah Keal

Photograph: Samora Chapman