Making a Difference at the Centre of an Epidemic

More than two thirds of all people living with HIV are based in Africa and in some areas of the continent AIDS has raised death rates and lowered life expectancy among adults by approximately 20 years.

The first global HIV epidemic began in the 1980s and since then, scientists around the world have been fighting to help prevent it spreading and to improve life expectancy and the quality of life for those living with the virus.

Professor Frank Tanser – a leading epidemiologist and a Global Professor in Rural Health and Social Care at the University of Lincoln – was one of the founders of a specialist research centre set up specifically to study the HIV epidemic in rural South Africa.

Since its inception in 1998, the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies has delivered major insights into the evolving and dynamic nature of the HIV epidemic.

Professor Tanser was responsible for building Africa’s first comprehensive population-based Geographical Information System (GIS) at the centre and his pivotal work over the last 20 years has combined geo-spatial and epidemiological methods to shed new light on the virus.   

“We had an army of fieldworkers knocking on doors and testing everyone in the population, so that we could really get a handle of what was happening at the population level,” said Professor Tanser.

More than 40 percent of young women aged 25 to 35 were infected – and at that stage there was nothing anyone could do about it. But when the antiretroviral (ARV) drugs were introduced in 2003-2004 we had the privilege of being able to quantify the resultant impacts in a region that was widely considered by many to be the epicentre of the epidemic.

Professor Frank Tanser

Professor Tanser’s studies saw life expectancy shoot up and the number of deaths drastically reduce. His team was also able to quantify a sharp reduction in new HIV infections in a rigorous manner – something that hadn’t been done in any other hyperendemic setting.

“It had been a long way off when I started my work, so it was spectacular when it happened. There had been some fantastic work by activists to get the drugs rolled out and the effects were amazing.”

Professor Tanser’s research into the impact of the antiretroviral therapy (ART) roll-out has led to wide-reaching and rapid changes to government policy as to how ART programmes in Africa are designed and implemented. In particular, a seminal study he published in the journal Science, was the first to show that nurse-led and decentralised HIV programmes in rural areas could be successful in reducing HIV transmission. The results came at a critical time as countries and donors were re-evaluating their commitments to dedicate resources to ART programmes. 

This research recently earned Professor Tanser the South African Medical Research Council’s Gold Medal as well as the Royal Geographical Society’s Back Medal, which are awarded to exceptional scientists who have conducted seminal research that has made an outstanding contribution to the development of national and international public policy.

Meet the Expert

Professor Frank Tanser
Global Professor in Rural Health and Social Care
College of Science

Professor Frank Tanser is a leading epidemiologist and a Global Professor in Rural Health and Social Care at the University of Lincoln.

He was one of the founders of a specialist research centre set up specifically to study the HIV epidemic in rural South Africa. Since its inception in 1998, the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies has delivered major insights into the evolving and dynamic nature of the HIV epidemic.

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