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Achievers

An infectious passion for tackling disease

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Internationally distinguished but refreshingly humble, Professor Lucille Blumberg, epidemiologist and former deputy director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, has devoted her life to the study of infectious diseases.

“Lucille is tireless,” says Professor Marc Mendelson, the director of infectious diseases and HIV medicine at the University of Cape Town. “She is the go-to person in South Africa if you have a problem in infection – she’s my go-to person. She brings together an amazing ability to amalgamate clinical expertise with the laboratory side, and most importantly, the public-health side of infectious diseases.”

Mendelson was just one of the many medical experts and professors who paid tribute to Blumberg, who received this year’s Absa Professional Excellence Award – From Covid to Hope. Among her myriad achievements, Blumberg has most recently been instrumental in developing a system to document South Africa’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She realised right at the beginning of the pandemic that as a country, we didn’t have a hospital surveillance system and so she very quickly mobilised and spoke to the right people to make sure that this happened,” says Professor Lynn Morris, the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand. “She recruited volunteers, who were inspired by her vision and call for action to help her set up what is now called the Datcov Hospital Surveillance System.” This system collects comprehensive, real-time data on morbidity and mortality including demographic, clinical, and treatment information, and it’s shared through daily and weekly reports.

The Datcov system has very quickly become a vital source of information and continues to guide the national response to the pandemic. “Lucille is extremely passionate about everything she does and will stop at nothing to make sure that things happen as they should,” says Morris. “She’s a force of nature and a can-do person – just the sort of person you need in an emergency.”

Having started her career in clinical medicine, Blumberg later discovered what she calls, “the magical world of microbes”. An exciting field that always offers something new to discover, the study of infectious diseases combined with the management of outbreak responses remains her passion and one for which she is internationally respected. Indeed, Blumberg has done extensive work with the World Health Organization and other international bodies on globally important outbreaks and epidemics.

“I’ve been working in outbreaks for almost 20 years and never came across anything like COVID-19,” says Blumberg. “It’s changed all our worlds and it’s required a tremendous effort, huge resilience, and extra resources. It’s put vaccines on a new trajectory and brought many different players together.”

In accepting her award, Blumberg said, “Public health is never about one individual, it’s always about a team and making a difference to community lives.” She paid tribute to the SA Jewish Report and the webinars it hosted for lightening the dark days of COVID-19, her beloved mother for teaching her all the important things in life, and her team who helped establish the Datcov system.

“I want to recognise the wonderful nominees, especially the healthcare workers who have shown great courage, worked long hours, and saved many lives on the frontline,” she concluded. “They are the true heroes. We will get through this, we will continue to show great resilience and come together as a community. It’s vaccines that will open up our world and allow us to travel and dream again.”

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