She saved them because they reminded her of her work as a pediatric intern at Boston Children’s Hospital. One of the first patients she took care of was an infant with HIV.
Mofenson, 62, chief of the Pediatric, Adolescent and Maternal AIDS Branch of the NIH, still feels a calling to take care of HIV-infected women and children. She works with researchers developing treatments, clinical trials and other prevention efforts aimed at preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission.
She also advises the World Health Organization, attending research sites and WHO meetings around the world to monitor search initiatives and recommend ways for limiting transmission of the virus.
For her work, she is a finalist for the Career Achievement Medal, one of nine 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, the government equivalent of “Oscars” for outstanding federal employees. The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, which administers the awards, will announce the winners in September.
“Research in children and research in pregnant women is a very ignored area in general, particularly when it comes to HIV,” she said. “You need to be the voice for those people.”
The early days
When she came to the NIH in 1989, the HIV transmission rate from mother to child was 25 to 35 percent.
In the early 1990s, she said, it was controversial to think about giving antiretroviral drugs to pregnant women.
A landmark research study she performed with her team in 1994 showed that transmission in the absence of any drugs was 25.5 percent in the United States, but the use of zidovudine (AZT) reduced the transmission rate to 8.3 percent. Today, with fewer than 100 infants born with HIV each year in the United States and mortality under 1 percent with the drug interventions developed, Mofenson said clear progress has been made.
“HIV was a terrible disease. It was killing women and children. And that was my goal, to figure out how to change that,” Mofenson said.
“We’ve developed intervention to prevent transmission from mother to child. . . . With developed drugs, we can treat these children who used to die before they were 1. . . . Now they’re becoming 20 and 30 years old. It’s quite an amazing change of paradigm to see in the course of a career.”
She didn’t always want to be a doctor. She thought the lifestyle was too stressful and the hours too long. She decided first to be a psychologist. But her father’s example proved too powerful.
Howard C. Mofenson was a pediatrician at Winthrop-
University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y. She remembers going on house calls with him when she was 6 and later making rounds while he worked at the hospital. One weekend, she came home from graduate school and, while on rounds with her father, held a baby with a fever while he was doing a spinal tap. As she watched him talk to the baby’s parents, she could see the difference he made in families’ lives, she said.