Prof Lucille Blumberg to receive an Honorary Doctorate

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) Prof Lucille Blumberg will receive an honorary degree (Doctor of Medicine) from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) for her lifetime contribution and excellent leadership in the early intervention, detection, control and surveillance of infectious disease outbreaks for over two decades.

“I was overwhelmed,” she says. “This is a wonderful recognition of a lifetime’s work.”

She adds that the honorary degree is inspiring and it energises her to do more. “It’s wonderful to be affirmed for what you have done, but it’s always a team effort.”

Commenting on Prof Blumberg’s honorary degree, Interim Executive Director of  the NICD, Prof Lynn Morris, says: “She is one of the world’s leading experts on the epidemiology of communicable diseases affecting Africa.”

Prof Blumberg is a Deputy Director at the NICD  and the founding Head of the Division of Public Health Surveillance and Response.

Prof Blumberg’s dedication has seen her establishing excellent systems for national surveillance as well as early detection of and response to outbreaks.

She has had an exceptionally long career and a rather gradual ascent to where she is to date. “I have had a long career in medicine,” she reminisces. “I have also changed direction quite a few times.”

She cut her teeth at the Baragwanath Hospital in the paediatrics unit before moving to the critical care unit at the same hospital. “This was an exciting time of my life with lots of adrenalin,” she says.

But then, she adds, you start seeing the other side of medicine; the prevention of disease infection, rather than treating the end result.

Enter the two career influencers

Prof Blumberg owes her success and achievements to many people, but in particular to Prof James Gear, whom she calls the pioneer of tropical diseases and a previous director of the old South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR) (now known as the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS)) and Dr Benny Miller. Dr Miller was Chief Medical Officer at the Fever Hospital (now known as Sizwe Hospital, located just a stone’s throw from the NHLS) and a veritable fountain of clinical knowledge.

“After meeting these two gentlemen, I decided to pursue a diploma in tropical medicine at Wits,” she remembers. “This was a life-changing learning experience and the job that followed at Sizwe Hospital was a wonderful experience. I looked after patients from all over the continent with tuberculosis, malaria, trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) and Congo fever, to mention just a few.”

It was not long before Prof Blumberg made another career move. She decided to study infectious diseases formally. However, the only way to go about it was to specialise in clinical microbiology and became a registrar in clinical microbiology, which involved becoming a student again at quite a mature age. After completing this, she took up a post as a microbiologist at the SAIMR’s TB laboratory in Braamfontein.

She recalls that one afternoon, by chance, Prof Barry Schoub, who was the NICD Executive Director, and Prof Bob Swanepoel, a renowned virus hunter, invited her to attend an occasion at the Special Pathogens Unit as a medical specialist. “I jumped at the opportunity,” Prof Blumberg says. “I learnt so much from Prof Swanepoel, a veterinarian, about viral haemorrhagic fevers and infectious diseases in humans.”

Goodbye Columbo, hello disease detective…

Prof Blumberg’s first love is working in the clinical laboratory interface and being the disease detective – working on the likely cause of the outbreak and planning the strategic interventions to stop the epidemic.

Prof Blumberg has a broad interest in infectious diseases of public health importance in Africa. Her insights and knowledge have resulted in the identification and control of a number of outbreaks. It was Prof Schoub’s vision that led to the establishment of an outbreak division following the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003. Prof Blumberg soon took on the role as leader of this unit, which has been central to responding to a number of epidemics in South Africa. “This appealed to me, as someone who likes adrenalin,” she says.

Putting the team before self

Prof Blumberg believes that teams stand a better chance of accomplishing things than individuals could ever accomplish alone. “I have been part of teams that managed various outbreaks such as cholera, the influenza pandemic 2009/2010, Rift Valley fever, typhoid, malaria, the novel arenavirus (Lujo virus), rabies, and we worked very hard to reduce the risks and prevent the introduction of Ebola into South Africa,” says Prof Blumberg.

However, she singles out – as one of her career highlights – her role as a member of a team that worked around the clock in the prevention of and response to communicable disease threat before and during the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup hosted by South Africa. “We developed a strategy for monitoring communicable diseases for the FIFA World Cup in 2010, which is a model that has been used for other mass gatherings.”

The public health arena is the focus of much of her work and she puts great emphasis on the importance of working as and in a team. “It’s always about the team, never about an individual.”

Her aim, she says, is to keep people safe from emerging diseases. “This is a life-long passion because there’s always a possibility of new pathogens emerging,” she says.

She has also travelled far and wide and says that “no two days are ever the same, always expecting the unexpected in interesting places.”

A lifetime’s passion

Prof Blumberg is a medical graduate of the University of the Witwatersrand and an Associate Professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology at the University of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. She has specialist qualifications in clinical microbiology, travel medicine, and infectious diseases. She is currently a medical consultant to the Emerging Pathogens Centre on rabies and viral haemorrhagic fevers. Her special interests are in tropical diseases, travel medicine, management of severe malaria, diagnosis of viral haemorrhagic fevers, and the prevention of rabies.

Prof Blumberg has mentored generations of students and registrars in travel and tropical medicine and is recognised globally as a leader in the field of emerging pathogens – as is evidenced by her participation in many expert advisory committees.

She is a member of a number of World Health Organization expert committees, including the scientific advisory group for Neglected Tropical Diseases and the scientific advisory group for the ‘Blueprint’ for research and development for response to emerging pathogens.

She is an active member of various infectious disease societies and organiser of a number of scientific meetings. As President of the Infectious Diseases Society in 2001, she actively supported the establishment of the sub-specificity of infectious diseases in South Africa.

Blumberg has been recognised through a number of awards, most recently a Special Award from the South African Medical Council. She is a pioneer of the One Health approach to infectious diseases (such as rabies), which is recognised by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association. The latter presented her with the One Health Award in 2014.

Interested in everything medicine

Prof Blumberg credits her staying power to her energy, enthusiasm, flexibility, willingness to embrace change and desire to do the heavy lifting. “I am always aware that every day there’s something new to learn,” she says, and cautions about complacency. “Never become complacent, medicine is unforgiving when you least expect,” she warns.

She concludes: “I have had an incredible career at the NHLS/NICD with many opportunities that have come my way, because of being here.”

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