Professor Sliwa: the heart of African cardiology


Born in Germany, Professor Karen Sliwa has lived in South Africa since 1992. The cardiologist and University of Cape Town (UCT) researcher has helped to raise the country’s profile in the field since becoming the first woman and the first person from Africa to take the role of president-elect at the World Heart Federation (WHF).

“I see my role as bringing the 200 societies of the federation together to build a larger force and to influence policies,” she said at the time. It was an honour, she said, to be elected to the position.

Road to cardiology and South Africa

Like most people, Sliwa was uncertain what tertiary studies to pursue when she finished high school. “So I applied for law, social sciences and medicine,” she told the UCT Research and Innovation Department.

“And I was accepted first by the Charité Medical School in Berlin. I did not particularly enjoy medicine, but worked hard because I believe that you should deliver your very best in everything you take on.” And do her best she did.

Her move to South Africa was serendipitous. When she and her spinal surgeon husband applied for jobs in various countries, it was South Africa that was the first to respond. The move here has allowed her to excel in her field of research and cardiology.

Career highlights

For her work, Sliwa has received numerous accolades, including the South Africa/Germany Year of Science Celebrations Award (2012), German Cardiac Society Paul Morawitz Award for Exceptional Cardiovascular Research (2013) and the CPP Award (2014) and Africa’s Most Influential Woman in Business and Government Life-Time Award (2015), according to the Hatter Institute for Cardiovascular Research in Africa (HICRA) website.

In terms of research, she started the Heart of Soweto Study. Concentrating on patients at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, she investigated cardiac conditions in more than 8 000 patients. Sliwa noticed the high occurrences of health problems such as obesity, cardiac disease and hypertension in women who were of childbearing age.

The studies have now expanded to other countries in Africa – Nigeria, Sudan, Mozambique and Tanzania; the name has been changed to the Heart of Africa Studies.

She has also heightened interest in research and reporting on health issues in Africa. Sliwa focuses her attention on heart disease and women and has published numerous articles in medical journals.

“In the past, many journals were just not interested in African studies and, before the 1990s, many cardiology trials simply did not include women.”


Speaking to the International Society of Hypertension, Sliwa said she did not have any career mentors “but my career is built on strong collaborations with colleagues, which became friendships”.

Asked about supporting the next generation of female scientists, she answered: “I feel that women in general are working together very well. Women in leadership positions usually make special efforts so that other women can join the team and follow their path.”

I think ‘career cafés’ (where one can meet for 30 minutes with a mentor) or other mentoring programmes are highly important.”

Source: UCT and reporter

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