Friday, 12 June 2020

WHEN I MET MY NAMESAKE, THE HIV SCIENTIST, IN USA


Thandeka Moyo-Ndlovu, Health Reporter
I first met Dr Thandeka Moyo when organisers of an international HIV Research for Prevention Conference had booked us into one room at Grand Sheraton Hotel in Chicago, United States of America, thinking we were one person.

I gained access to the room where she had already checked in and to my surprise, I discovered that we shared the same name and surname.

She quickly pulled out a familiar green passport which confirmed that she was indeed Zimbabwean like me. What a coincidence!

It took several calls and emails for the organisers to realise that these two girls shared a first and second name but one was a science scholar and the other a health journalist. 

We laughed at the mistake and in no time, I figured that Thandeka was not only my age but was also born and raised in the City of Kings and Queens.

She went to Girls College in Bulawayo.

Later on in my room as I was preparing for the first day, I learnt that Thandeka was one of the scientists who had dedicated her life to finding a vaccine for HIV.

She was one of the presenters who had travelled all the way to share insights on the feasibility of ending HIV and Aids and I just had to listen to her presentations, to give her love, from Bulawayo of course.

Bulawayo remains one of the HIV hotspots in Zimbabwe with a HIV prevalence of 14,3 percent.

Despite measures to ensure people living with HIV are put on the life saving antiretroviral medication, Bulawayo still has about 33 000 people in need of ART, according to AVERT statistics.

Since the emergence of the pandemic, scientists, civil organisations and governments have rallied in an effort to find a cure for the disease which claimed the lives of 22 000 Zimbabweans in 2018.

“Before I reached my teenage years in the 1990s, I already knew there was a ‘terrible disease’ that could not be named, and which was claiming the lives of people around me. When someone died and nobody freely offered the cause, everyone knew not to ask,” says the 30-year-old University of Cape Town (UCT) doctoral graduate from Sunninghill suburb.

She says her love for science became imminent during her high school days at Girls College where Biology was her favourite subject.

“In the 2000s, things began to change. Antiretroviral therapy was more widely available, and more and more HIV-positive people were living healthy lives. But still, the stigma continued. This raised my curiosity. What is this disease, what causes it and why is there a stigma around it?” she asked.

Dr Moyo says as a young woman growing up in Zimbabwe, she has been privy to the evolution of HIV/Aids in the country over the past years. 

“The stigma towards HIV makes me angry, why should we discriminate? I got into HIV research to find a vaccine to prevent people from getting it but I also stand to say that it is not a death sentence and if one takes their ART as told to by their doctor, they can live a long healthy life,” she says.

“I continue to hope and advocate for the stigma associated with HIV/Aids to be eradicated, even before the virus itself is eliminated! Those infected with HIV can live long, healthy lives on treatment and with consistent use, ensuring that with undetectable viral loads they will no longer transmit the virus to others.”

She adds: “An HIV vaccine may be the most effective tool to completely eradicate the virus and therefore I continue to work in this field with the aim of contributing towards this important goal.”

Dr Moyo has been a post-doctoral research fellow since 2018 at the HIV Virology Laboratory at the Centre for HIV and STIs for the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) based in South Africa.

Her PhD thesis which she completed in December 2017 was entitled The role of envelope compactness and glycosylation in HIV-1 resistance to neutralising antibody responses. She has a Masters (Med) in Clinical Science and Immunology from UCT where she researched on the screening of neutralising antibodies against a resistant HIV-1 strain.

From October 2016 to March 2017, Dr Moyo was at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, where she was also researching on HIV-related issues.

She attained her Bachelor of Science degree with distinction from Rhodes University in Biochemistry and Microbiology in 2011 after completing her studies at Girls’ College. According to Dr Moyo, Bulawayo remains the warmest and precious place on planet earth. She visits home frequently and vows to stick to her Bulawayo roots which motivates her to work hard in all her endeavours.

“I am proud to be from Bulawayo and it will always be home. Nothing beats the childhood fond memories of wanting to drink from that Coca-Cola bottle during the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair and going to the Centenary Park at Christmas to see the lights,” she laughs. 

Dr Moyo enjoys the simple things in life like reading and running and so far, has done two half-marathons: the Mandela Remembrance Day Run and the Soweto Half-Marathon. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, she is now involved in the vaccine research.

“So, I continue to do that with my work at the NICD, in a wonderful lab headed up by two phenomenal women who have been role models to me for many years even before I worked there, Professor Penny Moore and Professor Lynn Morris. We are actually doing Covid-19 research and we hope to learn how different people’s immune systems respond to the virus specifically antibody responses which are known to be protective and important in good vaccines and hopefully we contribute to the science community coming up with successful prevention tools,” she said.

To young Zimbabwean girls, Dr Moyo emphasises the need for them to believe that girls can also fly high in the world of science. “I like to emphasise that young ladies can do it. We can be incredible scientists; we can run our own labs and make great scientific discoveries. Do not lose hope. Don’t let anything stop you. Work hard at school to get good grades and apply for all the scholarships you can. STEM isn’t for only boys and it is not too hard for girls,” she said.  Chronicle

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