22 April 2021 | Story Andre Damons | Photo Supplied
Dr Iqra Barakzai from the School of Pathology in the Faculty of Health Sciences is graduating on Thursday with a Doctor of Philosophy with specialisation in Virology.

The fact that South Africa is one of the countries hard stricken with an HIV/AIDS epidemic, has compelled Dr Iqra Barakzai to investigate HIV drug resistance in paediatric patients in central South Africa, so that she can have a direct impact on alleviating some of the adverse effects of this epidemic. 

Dr Barakzai, from the School of Pathology in the Faculty of Health Sciences, is graduating on Thursday (22 April 2021) with a Doctor of Philosophy with specialisation in Virology during the University of the Free State’s (UFS) fourth virtual graduation. She is currently working as a SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) medical scientist at the UFS/National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) Division of Virology. 

According to Dr Barakzai, she has always had a love for research, and when she did her PhD in Medical Virology addressing some of the issues that we are currently facing with the testing of HIV/AIDS, it was like a dream come true.
“It is a great honour indeed and I still cannot believe that my journey has yielded such a humbling outcome. I am truly grateful for all the support I had, it was by God’s grace,” says Dr Barakzai. It was difficult studying during the COVID-19 pandemic, as she was not allowed on campus during her final PhD year.

Challenges studying through a pandemic 

“It was very challenging to cope due to the lockdown regulations, but I received great support from my family (parents, siblings, husband, and daughter), friends, and especially my supervisor (Prof Dominique Goedhals), whose timeless efforts, support, and enthusiasm really pushed me to achieve my goals and succeed.”

“In the beginning it was challenging to work as a medical scientist in a COVID diagnostic lab, especially due to the high volumes of COVID samples we received, which were related to the different peaks involved in the COVID pandemic, e.g., the first and second waves of COVID-19. But at the same time, it was an honour to give back to the community and serve the people during this pandemic, and I would not change it for anything,” says Dr Barakzai.

Investigated HIV drug resistance in paediatric patients

With her thesis titled, Drug resistance mutations in newly diagnosed HIV-infected infants and in children and adolescents with virological failure on ART, Dr Barakzai investigated HIV drug resistance in paediatric patients in central South Africa. The study identified increasing levels of pre-treatment drug resistance in newly diagnosed HIV-infected infants; however, protease inhibitor resistance remained rare. The findings confirmed the continued efficacy of recommended antiretroviral regimens for initiating treatment and the utility of dried blood spot samples for surveillance activities.

She decided on this study as there was an overall lack of research regarding HIV drug resistance profiles in the paediatric population in central South Africa, explains Dr Barakzai. “The aim of the study was to investigate HIV drug resistance profiles in infants born to HIV-positive mothers. Additionally, to investigate drug resistance profiles of children and adolescents who are failing antiretroviral treatment and how it negatively impacts their current and future treatment options. The findings highlighted the importance of drug resistance testing to monitor the status of HIV drug resistance in different populations across South Africa.” 

Dr Barakzai, who is inspired by the use of science to create modern technology that helps in addressing socioeconomic problems affecting South Africa, says her plan is to continue working as a COVID medical scientist and helping the community during these difficult times. However, she still has the love for research that might push her to take on a postdoctoral fellowship in the field of Virology.

She hopes to use the findings from the research study to contribute towards advancing our current knowledge of HIV drug resistance in different populations across South Africa.

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