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How Nelson Mandela Inspired Me to Fight Infectious Disease


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a bloodbath and they wanted to release him from prison in an attempt to restore order. He refused to be released. His constant refrain was “I cannot be free if my people aren’t free”. Madiba insisted on the unbanning of the ANC and on the release of political prisoners, before his own release.

My wife Kathy and I were in Cape Town on the day Mandela was released. We joined the vast gathering on the Parade, a large square next to the Cape Town City Hall. Madiba came out onto the balcony and a massive ANC flag was unfurled. And there he was, his fist in the air. It was an astounding moment for me: a non-person, a flag that once could not be shown, and there they were on the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall.

By this time I was a faculty member at the Rockefeller University in New York, working on infectious diseases and the immune system. Global infectious diseases were never far from my mind.

The first free election took place in 1994. The majority of South Africans were voting for the first time and they stood in line for hours to cast their vote. I was also voting for the first time in my life. I will never forget the feeling: the hope, the excitement.

The ANC won in a landslide. Madiba was President. The country was ecstatic. A constitution had to be written and laws had to be changed. A vast amount of work lay ahead. The economy had to be overhauled, the education and health care systems had to be transformed, and a science and technology infrastructure had to be established to drive innovation and economic development. I participated in this process by chairing a cabinet commission on the transformation of biomedical science.

Madiba took the unusual step of stepping down after one term as President. He did remain engaged, though. For example, when his successor Thabo Mbeki denied that HIV caused AIDS (this in a country with the highest infection rate in the world) he stepped in and made the case. Madiba approached the problem in a nuanced manner. A quote of his at the time illustrated this: “AIDS is no longer just a disease, it is a human rights issue”.

South Africa also has a very high prevalence of tuberculosis. Most of the TB is latent, which means people have been infected by TB bacteria but are not (yet) ill with disease. The collision between HIV and TB has resulted in a perfect storm. HIV weakens the immune system resulting in the transition from latent to active TB. As one might imagine, this has a great many consequences, both personally and socially. Madiba had a precise understanding of the impending devastation that could be caused by the intersection of HIV and TB. To quote, “We cannot win the battle against AIDS if we do not also fight TB.”

In fact, these infections are doing what apartheid could never achieve. They are destroying South Africa. Again, Madiba acted as an inspiration to me. In 2011 I moved from the Institute for Systems Biology to Seattle BioMed, where my scientific and political battle now is the development of vaccines, drugs and diagnostics for HIV, TB, malaria and other diseases that devastate resource poor countries. It is a tough assignment, but once again I will quote Madiba: “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.

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