Professor Hoosen Coovadia: A life in service to humanity

The late South African Professor Hoosen Mahomed ‘Jerry’ Coovadia, who died in Durban on 4 October, played a pivotal role in the training of medical students at universities in Africa and inspired a generation of researchers with his world-class works.

The world-renowned professor, who has been called an “icon of South African health”, was born in 1940 in Durban and died in the same city. He was a leading researcher in the field of HIV/AIDS, particularly in the areas of mother-to-child transmission and antiretroviral therapy.

His research helped to shape global policies and guidelines for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. He also made important contributions to the understanding of other infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and hepatitis B.

Coovadia was highly respected by his colleagues, both locally and internationally, the young researchers he mentored, and healthcare professionals. He was a strong advocate for collaboration and interdisciplinary work.


In an interview with University World News, Dr Ismail Ticklay, a Zimbabwean paediatrician and senior lecturer in the child, adolescent and women’s health department at the University of Zimbabwe’s faculty of medicine and health sciences, said a set book Coovadia wrote continues to be used by students.

“In April 2021, his textbook, Coovadia’s Paediatrics & Child Health: A manual for health professionals in developing countries, was released in its seventh edition – 819 pages thick – 37 years after it was first published in 1984.

“Until the early 1980s, paediatric textbooks in South Africa and the rest of Africa were [primarily] written by British authors with no material and information addressing the particular and peculiar problems of African children,” said Ticklay.

“The book is widely regarded as a seminal work in the field of paediatrics and child health. It has been used as a set book for teaching locally and internationally and has helped to train generations of healthcare professionals,” he said.

Coovadia was his external examiner in 1994 during his postgraduate examination for a masters in paediatric medicine, he told University World News.

Ticklay said, as an external examiner, the late academic brought his expertise and experience to bear in the evaluation of medical students and programmes, helping to maintain high standards of education and training.

In a note to colleagues posted on the Facebook page of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) College of Health Sciences, Professor Busisiwe Ncama, the deputy vice chancellor and head of the college of health sciences at the university, said a giant had fallen.

Ncama said Coovadia was an emeritus professor at UKZN who made many contributions to global health policies.

“With several accolades for his groundbreaking research, he was also a stalwart in the fight against injustices in South Africa and abroad.

“He is well known for incurring the wrath of [former South African president] Thabo Mbeki’s government by insisting on scientific integrity and campaigning for the rollout of antiretroviral therapy and he has nurtured a generation of medical students with his prolific research,” said Ncama. Mbeki has been criticised as a denialist of the link between HIV and Aids.

In a tribute to the late professor, published in The Conversation, a research professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, Professor Glenda Gray, said Coovadia has been described as the ‘Nelson Mandela of health’ due to his dedication to ameliorating the diseases that afflicted the children of South Africa, like malnutrition, measles and HIV, and for his role in health activism.

She said that, during his time as an academic, Coovadia became prominent in the anti-apartheid movement.

“We worked together on studies seeking the most cost-effective way of preventing paediatric HIV using the least amounts of antiretrovirals at a time when these were prohibitively expensive.

“Over the years, we would co-publish on these studies and the effect of these various interventions to minimise breast milk transmission [in studies on mother-to-child HIV transmission],” wrote Gray, who also referred to Coovadia’s textbook on paediatrics and child health as “my bible”.

A legacy in service of humanity

According to the South African National Planning Commission, Coovadia was a founding member of the South African Academy of Science who also held honorary and other qualifications from several institutions, including the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and the University of Bombay [now the University of Mumbai] in India.

The commission said the late professor published papers on the basic science and pathogenesis, clinical management, epidemiology, prevention, and contextual factors causing morbidity, disability and mortality among Africa’s children.

In a statement, South Africa’s National Research Foundation also alluded to several honorary doctorates and awards bestowed on Coovadia.

The NRF said he was also a recipient of the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights; the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility; and the Order of the Star of South Africa for his contributions to democracy and health, which was presented to him by the late former president Nelson Mandela.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said Coovadia was an outstanding scientist and committed anti-apartheid campaigner who dedicated himself to South Africa’s liberation struggle.

“His pioneering, globally acclaimed research into mother-to-child transmission of HIV has rendered an immeasurable legacy to humanity in terms of which persons living with HIV can live long and healthy lives subject to early detection and access to treatment,” added Ramaphosa.