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International Women's Day 2023: Prof Refiloe Masekela

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On International Women’s Day 2023, we celebrate all of the inspirational women at The Union, as we stand for opportunities for all and against inequality.

The Union is a diverse organisation, with female staff, consultants and members across the world in a variety of roles and fields. Today we shine the spotlight on just a few of these incredible women.

Refiloe Masekela

Professor Refiloe Masekela

Chair of the Union Adult and Child Lung Health Section and paediatric pulmonologist

What is your role at The Union and what does it entail?

I am the Chairperson of the Adult and Child Lung Health Section. This is a group that has a focus on overall lung health issues. We have a number of strong and active groups: Maternal and Child Working Group, Asthma Working Group, Post-TB Lung Disease Working Group, Chronic Disease Working Group and a newly established Childhood Pneumonia Working Group. We have a multi-disciplinary group of experts in both adult and paediatric and adolescent lung health.

We have grown significantly as a group in the last few years and we hope to expand our footprint in The Union to be able to address the challenges of both acute and chronic non communicable lung diseases, which are largely underfunded and under-appreciated in many low- to middle-income countries (LMICs).

What drove you to become a paediatric pulmonologist and researcher?

I am based in South Africa and in the early 2000s when the HIV epidemic was at its peak in the country, I managed a large cohort of children in the HIV clinic who had chronic respiratory disease and bronchiectasis. I was drawn to research to try to find effective strategies that would improve their quality of life once they had access to life-saving anti-retroviral treatments. This gave me a passion to try to use research as a tool to first quantify the burden of disease and to use it to solve clinical problems.

Africa as a continent has 25% of the world disease burden, but only 2% of the research output. It is vital that this gap should be addressed and that context specific solutions be found to address issues in all situations. More so in LMICs where there is limited resources and budget, and health systems require quality research to guide policy decisions.

Besides the research teams and capacity one can build in their environment, I have worked with some fantastic collaborators and mentors throughout my career, who have brought fresh insights and novel ideas to my work.

What inspired you to educate others?

I think the educator gene runs in my family. I come from a family of educators, and sharing skills and knowledge with students and peers has created a cycle of learning that I find refreshing.

I learn the most from my students and early career researchers that I mentor. I hope that my legacy will be the knowledge in exchanges with my students and peers.

What would you say to encourage others to get involved in health research?

The journey to health research starts with a good mentor. I stuck to research because I have been blessed to have excellent mentors in my life who have supported me and gave me guidance throughout my academic and research career.