Number of Disabled People in the World Predicted to Rise General

UKZN Medical students with visiting United States scientists Dr Judith Holt (left) and Dr Michelle Larsen.UKZN Medical students with visiting United States scientists Dr Judith Holt (left) and Dr Michelle Larsen.

The number of people living with disabilities will rise in future due to improving life expectancy across the world and early and effective treatment of infectious diseases such as HIV and Tuberculosis (TB) in developing regions.

This is according to Dr Judith Holt of the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University in the United States, who presented a lecture at UKZN titled: “Disability and Society: Beyond Treatment”.

Holt and Dr Michelle Larsen of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York were hosted by the UKZN branch of the South African Medical Students Association (SAMSA) which is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Association (IFMSA).

Holt’s presentation focused on the societal perceptions of disability and the lack of opportunities for people living with disabilities from the level of policy development to implementation. Highlighted was that the global disability burden is about 15-20%, meaning that a large percentage of patients seen by medical practitioners will have disabilities requiring optimum interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary management.

She predicted that the number of people living with disabilities will further rise in the future due to improving life expectancy across the globe and effective and early treatment of infectious diseases, including HIV and TB in developing countries.

Holt emphasised that the environment was the key mediator in a person’s functional capacity and should be optimised to ensure people living with disabilities function optimally in society.

Larsen’s lecture was titled: “A Journey of TB and HIV Vaccine Development”, which explained the arduous process of pre-clinical research and vaccine development trials using animal models. She said mother-to-child-transmission of HIV by breast-feeding remained a major obstacle in the eradication of HIV infection. ‘Although in South Africa we have seen a remarkable decline in HIV transmission to newborns - down to less than 2% - other countries such as Ethiopia do not share the same success story. Compared to adults, HIV-infected infants have more rapid disease and show higher susceptibility to co-infections such as tuberculosis,’ said Larsen.

‘Although the Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine can be administered at birth to protect against TB, BCG can disseminate in HIV-infected infants and increase mortality.’

Towards the goal of developing a paediatric combination HIV-TB vaccine to prevent both oral HIV acquisition by breast-feeding and TB infection, Larson’s study tested and optimised an immunisation regimen using a novel live attenuated mycobacterium tuberculosis vaccine engineered to express simian immunodeficiency (SIV) antigens followed by heterologous MVA-SIV boosting in the infant macaque model.

Larson said a single oral dose of the attenuated Mtb-SIV vaccine strain mc26435 during the first week of life was sufficient to induce persistent TB-specific immune responses. Importantly, in addition to plasma SIV-specific IgG and IgA antibodies, infant macaques developed mucosal SIV-specific IgA in saliva and intestinal IgA and IgG.

The President of SAMSA, Mr Kapil Narain, remarked: ‘We appreciate these scientists’ expertise, time and efforts in making the lectures a success. This is certainly a riveting inception for SAMSA 2017!  We seek to generate awareness of HIV and highlight major health concerns in this country. I believe it is imperative for students to be au fait with high levels of academia. Ultimately, I endeavour to do everything within my power to inject a thirst, a passion, and a fervent frenzy for research among Medical students at this University.’

Final year UKZN Medical student, Mr Kumeren Govender, commended Larsen on her lecture saying it was extremely relevant as South Africa has the highest rate of TB and HIV co-infection in the world and is still using a TB vaccine (BCG) nearly a century old! 

‘An efficacious TB and HIV vaccine is the holy grail of cures and it was certainly enlightening to view the progress of various experiments and animal models developed,’ said Govender, who has strong interests in research and has so far published three peer-reviewed articles while at Medical School.

First-year Medical student, Ms Christine Schmidtgen, said it had been an honour and a privilege to host scientists all the way from the United States. ‘Dr Holt illustrated the importance of society in eliminating the stigma surrounding disabled individuals. Disabled people should still be treated with respect and dignity.

‘The talk on disability opened one’s eyes to various legal, social and environmental aspects concerning people living with disabilities in our society.’

Schmidtgen, originally from Germany, said she was finding medicine in South Africa particularly interesting.

Kumeren Govender