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UJ Master’s graduate aces her study on the effects of ARVs residual on fish and the aquatic ecosystem

Khesa Pitso, a senior alumna of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), passed her Master’s dissertation with 93%, becoming one of the top achieving graduates who earned Chancellor’s Medals. This comes after she investigated the exposure to chronic efavirenz on the haematology, liver, kidney, and spleen of the endemic freshwater fish species Oreochromis mossambicus (red strain) – from the possible effects of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) in municipal sewage treatment plant works.

Pitso’s research was based on the premise that access to antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) for people living with the human immune deficiency virus (HIV) and the acquired human immuno-deficiency syndrome (AIDS) disease cannot be overemphasized. The context of her research indicated that a small amount of the ARVs are absorbed by the human body while the rest end up in the municipal sewage treatment plants works.

Due to the inefficiency of the waste water treatment plants, ARVs are discharged in bioactive form and re-enter the earth’s surface and ground water sources. In South Africa, efavirenz is a preferred drug in the ARV treatment program. Therefore, fish may be unintentionally exposed to efavirenz. It is known that acute efavirenz exposure causes liver damage and elevated leukocrit levels.

Pitso explains: “The results show that organs reacted to the presence of efavirenz. High prevalence of the regressive and progressive changes suggests impaired organ function. Since the freshwater aquatic systems are ARVs sinks, the continuous unintentional efavirenz exposure of non-target organisms such as fish could eventually have deleterious effects on individual organisms and ultimately the entire aquatic ecosystems.”

She was one of the graduates who were geared to walk across the stage to receive their qualifications in the University’s autumn and winter graduation ceremonies. However, all national universities’ physical graduation ceremonies were cancelled due to the unprecedented dilemma posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pitso is one of the seven top achieving UJ Master’s graduates who were awarded the highest student honour by the University in the form of a Chancellor’s Medal. The medal is ordinarily presented to deserving graduates at the graduation congregation.

Currently, she works as a Demonstrator in the Department of Biology at the National University of Lesotho. She applied for a Parasitology Lecturer post in the same Department. If I she gets it, she says that will work as a Lecturer for the next two years, then come back to South Africa to pursue her PhD.

“The lockdown forced us to take a break from our busy lives and appreciate what is really important to us as human beings, our health. Restricted movements within the country and between countries had not really affected me much except for this much-awaited graduation. My family was looking forward to attending and celebrating with me at the University’s graduation ceremony. It was time to bask in the glory of the hard work has kept me away from my family,” says Pitso.

When the lockdown commenced in South Africa, Pitso was in her home country in Lesotho. “In Lesotho, after five weeks of lockdown, the restrictions were lifted to allow limited movement. At the end of those five weeks, we started a new way of living where we observed the safety measures to avoid or minimise chances of contracting this disease when we were allowed to get back to work. I must say that while we do not have confirmed cases of Covid-19 yet, it is important to stay vigilant so that we can save as many lives as we can. We do not have the capacity and resources to handle this pandemic, therefore the best way to handle it is to be highly cautious,” explains Pitso.

She says that it was a blessing for her to be with her family in Lesotho during the COVID-19 lockdown because she has been away from home for three years pursuing her Honours Master’s degrees in South Africa. “This was a time for bonding with my loved ones. I also had some time to catch up with my manuscript that we are trying to publish from my Master’s research work,” she says.

Many governments across the world try various ways to fight the spread of the virus. “I have learned from the pandemic is that our governments should have working systems in place to be ready for this kind of unexpected crisis. I happen to come across Bill Gates speech that he delivered in 2015 about building capacity for the US government to be able to handle such a crisis, I totally agree with him.

“Science and health sectors should receive more funding for research. And these research outputs should be communicated to the relevant stakeholders for implementation.

“I also think that every family should have a plot of vegetable garden, it helped my family a lot during this lockdown,” says Pitso.

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