Gita Ramjee, a South African scientist renowned for her work to expand women’s access to HIV treatment and prevention, died yesterday (March 31) from complications related to COVID-19. Ramjee was the chief scientific officer of the Aurum Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Johannesburg that focuses on HIV and tuberculosis research, and had just returned from a symposium in the UK when she became ill with the virus. She was 64 years old.
“Gita was a vibrant person, a real fighter,” the Aurum Institute’s CEO, Gavin Churchyard, tells the BBC. “That will be my lasting memory of her—how she fought with everything to advance access to healthcare for women in disadvantaged communities.”
Ramjee grew up in Uganda. After the military dictator Idi Amin came to power in the early 1970s, she moved with her family to India and later to the UK. In 1980, she obtained a degree in chemistry and physiology from the University of Sunderland in northeast England, and then relocated again, this time to South Africa with her husband in 1981.
She obtained a PhD in pediatrics from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban in 1994—a feat that she described in an interview with The Guardian in 2007 as a balancing act between studying and caring for the two sons she had by that point. “I used to get up at six in the morning,” she said, “prepare food, wake my children, send them off to school, do a half day of practical work, come back, pick my sons up from school, help them do their homework and send them to sleep”—and then get up at 2 A.M. to work on her thesis.
It was after her PhD that she became involved in research with women at risk of HIV infection. She went on to head the South African Medical Research Council’s HIV prevention research unit in Durban where she oversaw many trials on HIV prevention tools, including vaginal microbicides, products that could help women protect themselves against HIV infection. She also held honorary professorships at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and the University of Washington in Seattle, among others.
“Gita was an inspirational role model for young scientists including women scientists in South Africa and beyond,” reads a statement from the LSHTM. “LSHTM is proud to have been associated with her and we send our deep condolences to her family and friends all over the world.”
LSHTM director Peter Piot says in the statement that he is “deeply saddened” to hear of her death. “I have known Gita for many years,” he adds, “and it is hard to overstate her ground-breaking scientific contributions and unwavering commitment to HIV prevention, particularly for women and girls in Africa.”
Gutted. A kind person, a stellar vaccine scientist, a "towering HIV prevention research leader," someone who dedicated her life to ending the HIV pandemic, has died of Covid-19. Prof. Gita Ramjee was Chief Specialist Scientist + Director of the South African Medical Research... pic.twitter.com/SNiACexmSq— Dr. Seema Yasmin (@DoctorYasmin) March 31, 2020
Ramjee received the Outstanding Female Scientist award from the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership in 2018 in recognition of her work on HIV prevention. Speaking to the University of Sunderland alumni association shortly after receiving the award, she noted “a need for [a] more holistic approach to HIV prevention, which should include reproductive health care for women” in developing countries.
“I will continue to work with international donors to set the global health agenda,” she told the association, “and prioritize areas of research which will have the greatest impact on the lives of young women, and on public health in general.”