Galway nativeDerval recently welcomed EU Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn to Cape Town to show her the work she is doing on an EU-funded tuberculosis vaccination clinic.
Athenry woman Derval Reidy has spent the past three years in South Africa trying to help stem the epidemic of infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis
Having done her Leaving Cert at Presentation College Athenry and gone on to study nursing at Trinity College and St James’ Hospital, Derval decided to pursue a long-held interest in science and study Microbiology in UCD.
She had a ‘safe’ job working as a research nurse on HIV clinical trials in Dublin but found she had “itchy feet to go somewhere new, different and exciting”.
For most people, this means a year partying in South-East Asia or spending Christmas on Bondi Beach. For Derval, however, it meant departing for the rural South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.
“Working with HIV positive patients, one becomes very aware of the huge HIV problem in Africa. I always wanted to spend some time working here and decided to bite the bullet and look for work in 2009. Luckily I got a job on a large scale HIV anti-retroviral roll-out programme in rural South Africa,” she says.
While over there, Derval realised the extent of the TB problem in South Africa, and when her time in KwaZulu Natal came to an end, she decided to take up her current position as Clinical Trials Manager at the University of Cape Town’s Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine.
“Given the high rate of HIV in South Africa, TB remains the number one killer in HIV positive people,” explains Derval, adding that there are particularly virulent, drug-resistant strains of the disease that are quite common in South Africa and carry a 50 per cent mortality rate. A new vaccine is, she says, “urgently required”.
Derval’s clinic is based in Cape Town’s largest township, Khayelitsha, approximately 25 km outside the city centre. The clinical trial she oversees is investigating a new vaccine to prevent TB in HIV infected adults.
“We are responsible for recruiting participants into the trial and monitoring the participants closely for two years post vaccination. I am based mainly at the clinic and my work involves coordinating the trial, overseeing the research team, data collecting, trial management et cetera,” she explains.
The visit of fellow Galway woman Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn to Cape Town earlier this month was a welcome boost, as she pledged up to €1 billion for the next phase of the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Programme (EDCTP), which funds Derval’s clinic.
Derval says she does not know how much of the money will be allocated to her work in South Africa but that whatever funds are made available are “desperately needed”.
“TB until recently has always been an under-funded area compared to HIV but that seems to be shifting slowly. In terms of preventing TB, I really believe vaccine development is the way forward and I am very excited to be part of this project,” she says.
After three and a half years in South Africa, Derval feels that she is acclimatising well, and plans to spend another “one or two” years over there.
She admits however that she misses family and friends and “the craic” and will unfortunately not make it back to Athenry this Christmas.
Although spending Christmas on Table Mountain does not sound too unappealing, she confesses one slight concern ahead of the festive period, “I hope Santa will find me!”