October 2018

Odette Ferreira
1925-2018

The history of the AIDS virus is only complete if one includes the name of Maria Odette Santos-Ferreira (1925-2018), a pharmacist, university professor and researcher who was part of the Luso-French team that discovered and identified HIV-2 in the mid-1980s. This was Luc Montagnier’s team at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, which in 1983 had already isolated a virus in patients with AIDS or human acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. It must be remembered that AIDS, a new infectious disease that was destroying the immune system of patients, had only attracted attention in 1981. The discovery of the virus that caused it was published in 1983 in the journal Science. Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi were among the authors, and would win the 2008 the Nobel Prize for Medicine precisely for the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus.

Among many roles in science and academia, Odette Ferreira was also devoted to public service. Between 1992 and 2000, Odette Ferreira was the coordinator of the National Commission for the Fight Against AIDS, a position she held on the appointment of the Minister of Health, having developed projects with a significant impact on the prevention and dissemination of the disease. The project of its authorship with the greatest national and international impact was the exchange of syringes in pharmacies called “Say no to a secondhand syringe” to reduce the risk of transmission of HIV and other communicable diseases (hepatitis B and C) in the intravenous drug user population. Launched in 1993, this was the first syringe exchange program in the country and in Europe, outlining a plan of action that consisted of the delivery in 2500 pharmacies of 200,000 kits with a condom, a disinfectant wipe and a sterile syringe in exchange for one used syringe.

When she was honored by the Faculty of Pharmacy of Lisbon, Odette Ferreira admitted that “of all the prizes and distinctions” she had already received, “this is what touches my heart the most, because it is my school.” In 2012, she received the Gold Medal of the Order of Pharmacists, in 2010 gave name to a prize for research by pharmacists. The French Government decorated her as Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques and Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. In Portugal, she had already received the degree of Commander of the Military Order of Sant’Iago da Espada and, in January 2018, the President of the Republic decorated her with the Grand Cross of the Order of Public Instruction.