‘I’m making history’ - First HIV vaccine volunteers

2016-12-04 06:02

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Johannesburg - Meet Judith Lebambo*. She is one of a brave group of male and female volunteers prepared to enter great risks by testing the efficacy of the first HIV vaccine designed to stop a strain of HIV which is dominant in southern Africa.

Lebambo is 21 years old but looks much younger. When asked if she was really a young adult, she jokingly answered: “Don’t you know dynamite comes in small packages?”

Lebambo, from Soshanguve, northern Pretoria, is one of 5 400 people who are HIV negative and between the ages of 18 and 35, who will be participating in the HVTN702 HIV vaccine trial.

The trial, which began on October 26, aims to determine if an HIV vaccine regimen is safe, tolerable and effective in the long run in preventing HIV infection among South African adults.

“The availability of an effective HIV vaccine will help end the epidemic because the number of people infected with HIV will be reduced.

“In future, when people look back to when an effective vaccine was found, I want to be counted as one of those people who tested it,” says Lebambo.

At least 15 sites in five provinces – Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, North West, Western Cape and Eastern Cape – have been identified to conduct the vaccine trial. Setshaba Research Centre in Soshanguve, where Lebambo is enrolled, is one of the sites where the historic research is being conducted.

She told City Press that she was excited to take part in the study.

“It’s going to be an interesting three years for me, but I am looking forward to each and every moment. I am not scared because I know that the vaccine does not contain a real HI virus,” she said.

The vaccine does not contain a live virus, but a laboratory created molecule that looks and functions exactly like the HI virus.

After weeks of undergoing counselling, Lebambo is ready to begin the trial. She will receive her first of five vaccinations next week.

All participants will receive five injections over a period of one year and then they will be monitored for another two years to observe the durability of the vaccine.

The trial is double randomised, meaning that half of the participants will receive a vaccine and the other half a placebo (sterile water).

The participation of different groups would allow the researchers to determine any effects of the treatment when compared with the no-treatment (control) group, while other variables are kept constant.

Lebambo, who is in a relationship and is sexually active, was convinced by her friend – also a participant in this study – to take part in the HVTN702 trial.

She said it took little effort for her friend to persuade her because she knew many people who have died of Aids. Some were close to her and others were individuals she had known from the community.

“HIV is a big problem, not just in my community, but in [the whole of] South Africa as well,” she commented.

The latest statistics from UNAids showed that 7 million people in South Africa last year lived with the virus. About 180 000 of those had died of Aids-related illnesses, while 380 000 people have been newly infected.

However, a vaccine will take years from now before it could become available. Results from the HVTN702 trial were expected at the end of 2020, said researcher Professor Glenda Gray on Wednesday, when the HVTN702 was officially launched.

“This is because we are not only testing safety, tolerability and effectiveness, but also the durability of the HIV vaccine. We have to know how long the vaccine induces an immune response in a person,” she explained.

The HIV vaccine currently being tested had shown great immune response when tested in earlier studies, called HVTN097 and HVTN100.

Both earlier trials had sought to evaluate whether the RV144 HIV vaccine regimen conducted in Thailand would induce similar immune response in South Africans.

The trial showed that the vaccine regimen was safe and modestly effective in preventing HIV infection. The results also showed that it reduced HIV infection by 31.2%.

Speaking to City Press on Thursday, Khatija Ahmed, executive director of the Setshaba Research Centre, said researchers were hoping to surpass the result of the RV144 trial, that had had a limited success rate.

She said: “There are vast amounts of HIV prevention methods in South Africa, but it is clear that additional tools are required to reduce infection rates.

“With great hope and anticipation, we are launching the biggest HIV vaccine trial in seven years. For us, this represents the journey of the beginning of hope,” Ahmed said.

*Judith Lebambo is not her real name. 

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