AIDS treatment champion recognised
15 December 2014
Wits University has conferred an honorary doctorate on Dr Brian Brink in recognition of his role in ensuring that business and the government provide antiretroviral therapy, at a time when HIV/AIDS was a taboo and killing thousands of lives.
The Doctor of Medicine degree was awarded to Brink on 11 December at the Faculty of Health Sciences' graduation ceremony.
Reading a citation, the Dean of Health Sciences, Professor Martin Veller said: "Dr Brink, a Wits graduate, deserves his alma mater's recognition for his far-sighted and courageous persistence in leading the way in a matter of great humane and political importance."
Brink was one of the doctors who dealt with the first known HIV infected patients in South Africa - at the time there were just over 30 and they were all white gay men.
However, the discovery of HIV infected mineworkers a year later in 1986 and its prevalence signalled a crisis that was to usher in a period of ineffective government response leading to unnecessary deaths.
Brink, as the group medical consultant at Anglo American where, together with Mr Bobby Godsell, played a strategic role in introducing free anti-retroviral therapy (ART) to the company's employees.
As a result of "the efforts of Dr Brink, two of the country's largest companies, Anglo American and AngloGold initiated programmes that saved many thousands of lives, brought credit on the companies, and most importantly, set an example for the state health service to follow once the resistance of government leadership to ART had been overcome. Indeed, the vision and leadership of Brian Brink almost certainly played a central part in breaking down that (government) resistance," reads the citation praising Brinks' efforts.
After his capping by the Wits Vice-Chancellor, Professor Adam Habib, Brink took to the podium to deliver an address to the graduating health practitioners.
In his speech he shared the history of the virus in South Africa, the struggles fought by doctors and activists to force government to recognise and provide treatment to its people. Many of these efforts were led by Witsies.
"Government-led denialism on AIDS and its opposition to treatment was an embarrassment and shame to all of us who were desperately trying to halt the rampage of AIDS," said Brink.
In 2004 the government finally succumbed to the unrelenting pressure.
In accepting the honorary doctorate, Brink said: "I am deeply honoured and equally humbled to be receiving an honorary doctorate today. Whilst I may have made a contribution to improving the health of those most in need, I am very much aware that what I have been able to achieve is the product of the sustained efforts of many people.
This is an honour and recognition that I wish to share with all those that have been part of the fight against AIDS and ultimately the right to health for all our people. In particular I think of all the health care workers on the front line who work day and night and are so often taken for granted. And most importantly, the people living with HIV, who have shown the greatest courage and determination of all."
To the graduates, he asked that they use their education to promote fairness and justice in society.
"Understand that education is fundamental to the realisation of health. Remember that public health is part of your responsibility".
CITATION: BRIAN ANTONY BRINK
Dr Brian Brink was the group medical consultant at Anglo American where, together with Mr Bobby Godsell, he played a strategic role in introducing free anti-retroviral therapy (ART) to the company's employees.
Dr Brink believed passionately in the value of ART in treating HIV and the moral necessity for providing it to the workforce. He spent years fighting executive hesitancy and uncertainty within the company. Anglo American's public expression of commitment to an ART programme on August 2002 was a major victory for his persistence, courage and unwavering commitment.
At the time Anglo American employed about 68 000 people in South Africa, two-thirds of those on its platinum mines. The company's leadership pressed Dr Brink for precise numbers on what an ART programme would cost the company. He consistently argued that there were too many unknown variables to make precise calculations.
But he also argued strongly that providing ART would ultimately cost less than not doing so. He believed that it was critical for business to take the lead - although government was resisting - and was strongly criticised by the then Minister of Health for adopting that stance.
Despite the frustrations he felt Dr Brink kept up his internal lobbying activities until the August 2002 commitment. One of his former colleagues described his role as such, "Brian was the champion. He motivated and turned around a sceptical group. Without his efforts, it would not have happened".
In 2002, Anglo American estimated that approximately 23% of its employees in southern Africa were living with HIV, and that in any one year 10% to 15% of them might need ART. The Group companies contracted with AngloGold's Aurum Institute for Health Research to manage the implementation of ART through company-owned and -operated health-care facilities. By the end of 2002 11 company sites had been registered for the delivery of ART by Aurum and approximately 100 employees were receiving treatment.
Primarily due to the efforts of Dr Brink, two of the country's largest companies, Anglo American and AngloGold initiated programmes that saved many thousands of lives, brought credit on the companies, and most importantly, set an example for the state health service to follow once the resistance of government leadership to ART had been overcome. Indeed, the vision and leadership of Brian Brink almost certainly played a central part in breaking down that resistance.
The work of Dr Brink has also resonated internationally, where large-scale ART provision through the workplace is now well established. Without his break-through leadership this achievement may have been significantly delayed.
Dr Brink advises the Nelson Mandela Foundation on the strategic response to HIV/AIDS in South Africa, and currently serves as alternate board member for the Private Sector delegation on the Board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria.
Dr Brink is involved in various national initiatives to enhance the role of the private sector in broadening access to sustainable, quality healthcare for all the citizens of South Africa. He is a director of Discovery Health, the largest health insurer in South Africa, a board member of Section27 (formerly the AIDS Law Project), and the current chair of the International Women's Health Coalition, which provides excellent technical advice on the most appropriate interventions in support of women and girls in developing countries.
Dr Brink, a Wits graduate, deserves his alma mater's recognition for his far-sighted and courageous persistence in leading the way in a matter of great humane and political importance. Wits is proud to honour its graduate for his leadership in this vital field of social change by awarding Dr Brink with an honorary doctorate.
Issued by the University of the Witwatersrand, December 17 2014
Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter