Reuben Sher, a
South African immunologist whose 1983 warnings about a
disease to be called AIDS were largely ignored both by the
apartheid government and its successor, died Monday of
surgical complications, the Cape Times
Sher, then of the
South African Institute for Medical Research, began his
crusade after a trip to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
in late 1982.
there was 'something' but no one knew what it was,"
said Dennis Sifris, a Johannesburg physician with a large
gay practice whom Sher soon called for advice.
patients agreed to come in and be tested," the Times
quoted Sifris as saying. "Because there was no
antibody test, we kept the blood samples locked up in a
became available two years later, the pair found that nearly
12% of the men tested in 1983 were already HIV-positive.
Johannesburg General Hospital allowed the two to start an
AIDS clinic one day a week.
"I was looking
for something to specialize in, and here was this new
disease that involved a virus and immunity, both of my
interests," Sher told Cape Town's Health-e news
service in 2004.
He soon found,
though, that funding--and compassion--would be
When AZT became
accepted as an HIV treatment in 1987, Johannesburg health
officials gave it to "blameless hemophiliacs but not to
people [who] acquired HIV sexually, the implication
being that it was their fault that they were
infected," Sher told Health-e.
Also in 1987,
Sher conducted the first AIDS study in a black
population--migrant mine workers from Malawi. Nearly
4% of them were HIV-positive, he found.
Rather than treat
the men or grapple with the fact that they might have
picked up HIV locally, the Chamber of Mines simply stopped
recruiting workers from Malawi.
"First AIDS was
seen as a gay disease, then a black disease," Sher
said in 2004. "One got the feeling that the [apartheid]
government didn't really go out of their way."
Today, more than
5.5 million South Africans are HIV-positive--roughly
19% of the adult population. About 1,500 South
Africans contract HIV every day, the Human Sciences
Research Council reported in 2005. Every day, nearly
1,000 others die of AIDS.
Only 20% of those
millions receive antiretroviral therapy. A five-year
plan to boost that number to 80% is jeopardized by politics
and lack of funding.
after the fall of apartheid in 1994--he later
complained that white AIDS doctors were "shunned" by
the new government--but continued to see AIDS
patients in his private practice in Johannesburg.
president of the HIV Clinicians Society, called him "a
man who warned us all that HIV would decimate the country,
was ignored, and was tragically proved right."
(Barbara Wilcox, The Advocate)