Hoosen Coovadia, a South African pediatrician and research scientist, and international authority on HIV/AIDS, particularly mother-to-child transmission, has been named recipient of the 2013 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Coovadia was honored by AAAS for "his unwavering belief, in the face of opposition from his government, that sound science should guide public policy and his devotion to the health of the most vulnerable."
The Lancet has called Coovadia "a giant of medicine in South Africa" and an academic colleague has said he is "like a Nelson Mandela in health." He is emeritus professor of pediatrics and child health at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, and remains active as director of the HIV Management, Maternal, Adolescent, and Child Health Unit in Durban, attached to the University of Witwatersrand..
In the 1970s, Coovadia, known as "Jerry," played a prominent role in the non-violent struggle against apartheid in South Africa. A native South African of Indian ancestry, he was a key figure in the rejuvenation of the Natal Indian Congress (founded by Mahatma Gandhi) and in the United Democratic Front [UDF]. His house was bombed during the political turbulence of the early 1990s. In the post-apartheid years, he held several democracy-building positions, including deputy chairperson of the Transitional National Development Trust and chairperson of the Commission on Maternal and Child Health Policy.
In the 1990s, he shifted his professional attention to the study of HIV/AIDS. His participation in international studies of AIDS brought him into conflict with the government of President Thabo Mbeki, which denied the widely accepted theory that the HIV virus was the cause of AIDS. The denial had tragic consequences for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Dr. Coovadia found himself torn between loyalty to Mbeki, his longtime colleague in the fight against apartheid, and his loyalty to sound science. He chose the latter.
The disagreements came to a head in 2000 when Coovadia was elected chairperson of the 13th International Conference on AIDS in Durban. He refused demands by the South African health minister at the time, that he make a statement about the government's misguided views on AIDS.
Although the AIDS wars have died down in South Africa, Coovadia continues to be passionate about the plight of the less privileged. He has expressed outrage about the level of violence in the country, noting that the nation's constitution is violated "every second of every day" by "male domination over women and abuse of children."
In 1999, President Nelson Mandela honored Coovadia with the Star of South Africa for his contribution to democracy and health, and he has received a medal from the Medical Research Council for excellence in research. In 2000, he received the "Heroes in Medicine" award in Toronto, Canada; the International Association of Physicians in AIDS and Care Award; and the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights. He is a founding member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, which recognized his contributions to science by awarding him its Science for Society Gold Medal in 2004. He has published more than 350 journal articles and trained more than 40 postgraduate students.