Medical professionals on the frontlines of the COVID-19 battle in this country should today pause just long enough to draw inspiration from a national hero whose pioneering work during another pandemic earned international acclaim.
Professor Courtenay Felix Bartholomew, a physician and medical researcher died yesterday at age 89, leaving behind a body of work that contributed significantly to advances in the diagnosis and treatment of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (Aids).
Not only did he diagnose the first case of Aids in the English-speaking Caribbean, but as founder and director of the Medical Research Foundation of T&T (MRFTT), Prof Bartholomew led HIV vaccine trials and research.
He was also a member of the World Aids Foundation Scientific Advisory Committee and promoted public education on Aids.
Prof Bartholomew was an associate of Dr Luc Montagnier who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1983 for identifying the virus that causes Aids and then again in 2008, for his efforts in the fight against HIV and Aids.
As is now the case with the COVID-19 pandemic, there were many unknowns in the early 1980s, when rare types of pneumonia, cancer, and other illnesses were being reported to doctors.
The global community is beginning to seriously contemplate an Aids‐free generation for the first time in three decades but when Prof Batholomew and his colleagues embarked on their groundbreaking work there was a lot of fear and superstition surrounding the disease.
Early on Aids was unfortunately labelled a “gay plague” and it was against that backdrop of stigma and discrimination that Prof Bartholomew started his lifesaving research.
At that time he had already gained recognition for his research on scorpion sting venom, acute pancreatitis and Hepatitis A and B in T&T. Before that, he was the first local physician to receive membership of the Royal College of Physicians, London without examination.
Born and raised in Port-of-Spain, he attended Nelson Street Boys’ RC School and St Mary’s College. His path to success was neither easy nor swift but was the result of arduous work and dedication to his profession.
In recognition of his many achievements, Prof Bartholomew won this country’s second-highest award, the Chaconia Gold Medal, in 1975, then the nation’s highest award, the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (ORTT), in 2017.
His extraordinary life and work should serve as a timely reminder to this country, now in the throes of a public health crisis, that there is the capacity within us to beat this pandemic. However, it requires rising above the myths and misinformation which was also a challenge when Prof Bartholomew was on the frontlines of that other pandemic in the 1980s.
Among the many challenges this time around, the good news about China’s Sinopharm vaccine getting World Health Organisation (WHO) approval has been overshadowed by disinformation about its safety and effectiveness.
We all need to follow the example of the late Prof Bartholomew, stand on the side of science, and reject all the baseless anti-vaccine speculation.
May his life and work inspire and motivate our frontline health workers to defeat the pandemic.