It was on the recommendation of Montpellier professor Philippe Vande Perre that the University of Montpellier awarded the title of doctor honoris causa to Zambian paediatrician Chipepo Kankasa last October. Unanimously recognised for her research on mother-to-child transmission of HIV, she is also the initiator of access to antiretroviral treatment for African children and of prevention strategies carried out in Zambia to combat the transmission of HIV through breastfeeding.

The man, who addresses the audience in English, exchanges a knowing glance with his colleague, who is sitting opposite him in the anatomy lecture theatre of the historic medical building. Three years ago, Philippe Vande Perre, a researcher and doctor in Montpellier, made the following request to the University: " She [Chipepo Kankasa] has never received the international recognition that her remarkable life of commitment and struggle richly deserves. I hope that the University of Montpellier will repair this injustice by awarding her an honorary doctorate. This was done, or almost done, on this October afternoon, which extended the Montpellier Global Days, where more than 2,000 African and French researchers had just gathered.

Thirteen years of collaborations

The story of Philippe Vande Peer and Chipepo Kankasa is a story as we like to hear in science. It is the story of a friendship born on the edges of an international research programme. It was 2005, Philippe Vande Perre was director of the bacteriology and virology department at the Montpellier University Hospital and had just joined the PROMISE consortium, which at the time brought together European and African universities, including that of Lusaka in Zambia. What is the aim of the project? To conduct very active research on child health and mother-to-child transmission in the context of the HIV epidemic in Africa. " Fifteen years ago, the situation in Zambia was very difficult, with an infection rate of 25% among adults of childbearing age," explains the Montpellier native.

Within this consortium, he met Chipepo Kankasa. She was then head of the Department of Paediatrics at the University Hospital in Lusaka and a pioneer in paediatric AIDS care, thanks in particular to the brand new centre of excellence she had just founded. "As a doctor, researcher, African woman and mother, she threw herself into the battle for the recognition of the right to care and access to antiretroviral treatment for children, at a time - the late 1990s and early 2000s - when there was a lot of scepticism about the merits of access programmes in a context of poverty, " recalls Philippe Vande Perre.

The great choices of my life

A career as a doctor, researcher, African woman and mother that she recounts with slides to her audience in Montpellier. Her childhood in a family that was extremely well known and respected for its pacifist fight for the independence of Zambia. Her marriage at 19, the birth of her first son at 20, then two others before her divorce at 26. " The biggest choices I made in my life were to leave my sons with my mother and go to medical school to specialise in paediatrics," she says with emotion.

She first studied in Zambia. She specialised in paediatrics at the University of Leningrad and then went on to specialise in infectious diseases in Japan. After returning to her native country for a year, she went back to Miami to do a post-doctorate on paediatric AIDS. In 1999 she returned to her country and began work that would demonstrate " the feasibility and effectiveness of treating paediatric HIV infection and that would serve as a basis for implementing integrated care programmes throughout the African continent, in accordance with WHO recommendations ", explains Philippe Vande Perre.

A career in the epidemic

Three extremely important studies on breastfeeding in the context of an AIDS epidemic will emerge from this consortium and will give rise to nearly twenty scientific publications whose impact on international recommendations for the prevention and management of HIV infection in children is no longer in doubt. " Today, Zambia is one of the very few African countries that has almost succeeded in eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV, with a transmission rate of less than 5%," says the doctor.

In a context where the disease is still far from being eradicated, with 10 per cent of adults of childbearing age still infected, the care of HIV-infected children has benefited from the immense work done by the centre of excellence founded by Chipepo Kankasa in 2005. " She is a strong and extremely determined woman. To found this centre, which is in a way the achievement of her life and which, let's remember, is unique in Africa, she knew how to knock on the right doors and convince important donors.

Obsession with transmission

This paediatric AIDS centre now provides quality care for HIV-infected children and also acts as a training centre for care. " She has this obsession with passing on skills and so has brought up a lot of young colleagues who have become paediatricians and paediatric infectious disease specialists. It's a really beautiful thing," observes her French colleague.

In the twilight of her clinical and academic career, Chipepo Kankasa is now devoting herself to increasing the visibility of her centre in Lusaka and is trying to federate clinical and basic research within the same university hospital structure in order to pave the way for young researchers and health professionals in her country. As she confided to the UM camera: " Sky is the limit ".