THE University of Sunderland has paid tribute to one of its most inspirational and much-loved alumni - the leading South African HIV scientist, Professor Gita Ramjee.

Professor Ramjee, who dedicated her life to the field of HIV prevention and was highly respected for her research in this area, has died in hospital near Durban on Tuesday from Covid-19-related complications.

Prof Ramjee had been working as the chief scientific officer at the Aurum Institute, a leading authority in the fight against HIV and tuberculosis.

For many years. she had been director of the HIV Prevention Trials Unit of the South African Medical Research Council, helping it to gain an international reputation.

But it was in Sunderland where her passion for science and research were first forged, graduating in 1980 with degree in combined studies (chemistry and physiology). She never forgot her time in the city and remained a loyal supporter of the institution.

Today Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the university, expressed his sadness on behalf of the university and sent his condolences to Prof Ramjee’s family.

He said: “Gita Ramjee was a brilliant scientist who made an outstanding contribution to humanity through her work in alleviating disease and suffering.

"We were extremely proud of all that she achieved and we mourn her loss very much. Our deepest sympathies go to her family at this very sad time”.

Prof Ramjee fell ill after returning to South Africa in mid-March from the UK, where she had been presenting at a symposium at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), an institution in which she held an honorary professorship.

South Africa’s Deputy President David Mabuza said in a statement: “The passing of Professor Ramjee comes as a huge blow to the entirety of the healthcare sector and the global fight against HIV/Aids.

"In her, we have indeed lost a champion in the fight against the HIV epidemic, ironically at the hands of this global pandemic. In her honour, we should heed the call to flatten the curve by strengthening our responses to this global pandemic as well as continue the fight to achieve zero new HIV infections.”

Growing up in Uganda, Prof Ramjee’s first experience of exile came at the hands of Idi Amin, the dictator who forced all Asians out of the country in the 1970s.

After a couple of years in a high school in India, the land of her ancestors, she relocated again, this time to the North-East, where she attended the University of Sunderland, then a Polytechnic.

It was here she also met her future husband - a South African of Indian descent.

She said of her time at university: “I loved my time in Sunderland. I lived in Wearmouth Hall, and we mixed with students from all disciplines which I think was a big plus. We worked hard but had a lot of fun too especially in the first two years – and I met my husband.

“After graduation I married and went to live in South Africa. It was 1980, and Apartheid was still in force, so it came as a big shock given the life I had just left as a student in Sunderland.

"We moved to Durban, as it was more cosmopolitan, and I joined the Medical School at the University of Kwazulu Natal and started work in the Department of Paediatrics.”

After the birth of her two children she studied for her Master's Degree, and then her PhD, Kidney diseases of childhood, which she completed in 1994 at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She then joined the South African Medical Research Council as a scientist and progressed rapidly to senior scientist, division head, chief specialist scientist and then Director of one of the largest units of the Council.

As the director of the HIV Prevention Research Unit, Professor Ramjee built the unit's scientific staff from 22 to 350, and helped it gain an international reputation.

Her commitment to HIV prevention research and attention to high-quality data and ethical research was instrumental in gaining the Unit substantial international donor and sponsor support.

Over the past two decades, she has conducted several community based trials of HIV prevention with her team, educating hundreds of disadvantaged community members on HIV prevention, treatment and care.

In 2012 Prof Ramjee received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the international Microbicide Conference for her major contribution over two decades to global scientific knowledge in the field of HIV prevention.

More recently, she was awarded a scientific excellence Gold award by the South African Medical Research Council.

The European Development Clinical trial Partnership (EDCTP), also awarded her with the Outstanding Female Scientist award. It was presented to her in Lisbon, Portugal in September 2018.

She was recognised for her life’s work that has focused on finding new HIV prevention methods, which are conducive to the lifestyles, circumstances and perceived risk factors that South African women are faced with.