Cathy Wilfert, M.D.: “The times had changed dramatically, and EGPAF changed with them.”

Cathy Wilfert in Malawi.

David Jones/EGPAF

Cathy Wilfert, M.D. is part of a group of prestigious scientists and researchers who proved that providing antiretroviral therapy to pregnant women living with HIV could greatly reduce the risk of a mother passing the virus onto her baby. Recently named by the American Academy of Pediatrics as one of the “7 Great Achievements in Pediatric Research” in the last 40 years, prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT) services have helped reduce the global number of new pediatric HIV infections by 58 percent.

In 1996, Cathy Wilfert, M.D., became the scientific director of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF). In that role, she pioneered EGPAF’s position as the global leader in PMTCT.

Two years earlier she worked with a leading team of scientists, including EGPAF’s Lynne Mofenson, M.D., as part of the National Institutes of Health’s ACTG 076 study to prove that the drug azidothymidine (AZT) could reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV by up to 70 percent.

"It was too soon to measure it, but we all knew that in a developed country, if you could provide AZT as the standard of care, you could reduce transmission.  It seemed that in the developed world we would progress,” said Wilfert. “Later, it became feasible that we could do it internationally [with single-dose nevirapine]."

A graduate of both Stanford and Harvard medical schools, Wilfert worked at Boston Children's Hospital and North Carolina Baptist Hospital before joining the staff at Duke University. There, she progressed to chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. With that experience, Wilfert was uniquely qualified to lead EGPAF's research and programmatic agenda when she retired from Duke in 1996.

Initially, Wilfert’s primary role was reviewing grant applications and awarding funds to Elizabeth Glaser Scientist recipients and other researchers. Then, in 1999, Wilfert directed EGPAF’s first international project, A Call to Action, shepherding grants to PMTCT programs in Thailand, South Africa, Kenya, Cameroon, and Uganda.

“We invited applications from overseas to propose systems in the local clinics or public health system to prevent mother-to-child transmission,” said Wilfert. “We didn't have international offices at the time. We just had clinical investigators who were willing to work within systems in countries."

"Then, countries requested an in-country presence, so we set up offices in many countries,” Wilfert continued. “I helped establish the in-country functioning of all the programs. I wrote grants, developed research, and encouraged in-country research. We were awarded monies from USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development]."

In 2004, soon after the creation of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), EGPAF applied for and was selected as a partner for a project with the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC). Through Project HEART (Help Expand Antiretroviral Therapy to children and families), EGPAF delivered HIV care and treatment services to countries outside of the United States. It was a large leap from the organization’s previous work.

"As we grew, we acquired additional physicians, and ultimately, pediatricians,” said Wilfert. “When I left EGPAF in 2010, I felt really good about our implementation of programs in the less-developed world. The times had changed dramatically and EGPAF changed with them.”