Quarraisha Abdool Karim Named UNAIDS Special Ambassador

The Mailman School professor of Epidemiology will focus on adolescents and HIV, while also championing the involvement of young women in science

November 28, 2017

One of the world’s leading researchers of HIV in young people, Quarraisha Abdool Karim, Mailman School professor of Epidemiology and associate scientific director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), is now UNAIDS Special Ambassador for Adolescents and HIV. Executive Director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibé made the announcement on November 20, calling Abdool Karim, “a strong and consistent champion of young people living with and affected by HIV.”

In her new role, Abdool Karim will focus on addressing and ultimately ending HIV among adolescents while also advocating for young women in science. According to the most recent statistics, an estimated 610,000 young people aged 15 to 24 are infected with HIV, with young women in this age group accounting for 59 percent of new infections. In eastern and southern Africa, young women aged 15 to 24 years make up two-thirds of new HIV infections in this age group.

“I am delighted that Quarraisha Abdool Karim has accepted this position,” said Sidibé, who was in Cape Town, South Africa, for the launch of a new UNAIDS report, Right to Health. “She will use her new role to continue to translate scientific research and knowledge into people-centered solutions and prevention programs to reduce the factors making young people so vulnerable to HIV infection.”

Over the past three decades, Abdool Karim has pursued research to understand and prevent HIV among young people, especially among young women, while advocating for the rights of people living with HIV. In 1990, she led South Africa’s first community-based survey of HIV infection, documenting rates higher in adolescent girls than boys. The finding was one of the first descriptions of what was later known as the “age-sex” difference in HIV acquisition in sub-Saharan Africa and reflects the reality of girls having sex with older men. In 2010, she and her husband, Salim Abdool Karim, CAPRISA director and professor of Epidemiology, reported success with a vaginal microbicide containing the antiretroviral drug Tenofovir—a milestone for which they were awarded the inaugural Olusegun Obasanjo Prize from the African Academy of Sciences. In ongoing research, they are evaluating new methods to prevent HIV in young women whose partners may be unwilling to use condoms. 

In early November, the BBC named Quarraisha Abdool Karim one of “Seven Trailblazing Women in Science,” as part of their “BBC 100 Women” list of influential and inspirational women around the world. Earlier this year, the Institute for Human Virology honored Quarraisha and Salim Abdool Karim with Lifetime Achievement Awards. In 2013, Quarraisha Abdool Karim was awarded South Africa’s highest honor, the Order of Mapungubwe. She holds an MS from the Mailman School and a  PhD  from the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa.

“As we increase our understanding of the HIV epidemic and the transmission dynamics that place young people at higher risk of infection, all sectors of society must work together to make sure that adolescents have access to the information and services that can keep them safe and well through a crucial period of their lives and into adulthood,” says Abdool Karim.