Senior Faculty Member at the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) and UKZN Professor, Frank Tanser, has been awarded a prestigious Royal Geographical Society ‘Back Award’ for conducting seminal research that has shaped national health policies in developing countries.

Prof Tanser is a medical geographer and infectious disease epidemiologist who has pioneered the use of geographical information systems in the field of HIV epidemiology. To date he has published over 170 articles in many of the world’s top journals. For the past 20 years, he has worked in northern KwaZulu-Natal in a rural population which has been particularly devastated by the HIV epidemic. His research into the population-level impacts of the antiretroviral therapy (ART) roll-out has led to wide-reaching and rapid changes to government policy on how ART programmes in South Africa are designed and implemented. Work that has led to important policy changes includes:

  • A seminal study published in Science in 2013 that showed nurse-led and decentralised HIV antiretroviral treatment programmes in rural areas could be successful in reducing HIV transmission. The study had rapid policy impacts and the finding was one of the key factors in moving treatment guidelines away from HIV treatment based on immune status to a “treat all” approach even in HIV hyperendemic rural African contexts.
  • His work on the influence of concurrent sexual partnerships on the spread of HIV infections through a population (published in the Lancet in 2011) led to a fundamental change in policy around programmes targeting concurrent sexual partnerships.
  • His research on the geospatial epidemiology of HIV was the first to reveal clear ‘corridors of transmission’ in a typical rural, hyper-endemic population, paving the way for enhanced structuring and rapid delivery of HIV interventions to the most vulnerable populations.

“I am absolutely delighted and deeply honoured to receive this prestigious award, which I accept on behalf of my amazing team of researchers and collaborators,” said Prof Tanser. “It has been a huge privilege to study the HIV epidemic in one of the world’s most severely affected rural communities and to witness first-hand the turning of the tide against this terrible disease. I want to thank my wonderful family for their unwavering support over the past 20 years. Without their unconditional support, none of this work would have been possible.”

The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)’s prestigious medals and awards recognise excellence in geographical research and fieldwork, teaching and public engagement. They are presented annually to individuals who have made outstanding achievements. Recipients join a prestigious list that includes Sir Alexander Burnes, David Livingstone, Alfred Russel Wallace, Captain R. Scott and Sir David Attenborough. The Back Award is named after the notable Arctic explorer Admiral Sir George Back. It was first given by the Royal Geographical Society in 1882 and is awarded for applied or scientific geographical studies which make an outstanding contribution to the development of national or international public policy.

“This accolade is thoroughly deserved,” said AHRI Director, Professor Deenan Pillay. “I am delighted that the seminal epidemiological work conducted at AHRI over the past 20 years – which has had such a major impact on health policy in the region – is being recognised in this way.”

“Congratulations on this wonderful achievement,” added Professor Busisiwe Ncama, Deputy Vice Chancellor and head of UKZN’s College of Health Sciences. “You deserve it for the amazing contribution you make to impoverished communities burdened with the HIV epidemic in KwaZulu-Natal. We are so proud of you.”

Photo: Prof Frank Tanser at AHRI’s field site in the Somkhele area, northern KwaZulu-Natal, along with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) coordinator Sabelo Ntuli.