Community engagement is not a “good-to-do but a must-do”, according to the International Aids Vaccine Initiative’s community engagement manager Zandile Ciko, speaking at a media briefing in Johannesburg earlier this week.
She said the failure of a Covid-19 vaccine community buy-in was an example of the need for full stakeholder engagement, so that people could actually understand the need for an HIV vaccine, reports Daily Maverick.
It was essential, she added, that scientists understood community struggles first before proposing solutions. Greater care was vital to ensure a legacy of community engagement – from design and trials, to licensing and distribution – if hesitancy issues were to be eliminated.
Of the more than 38m people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, 60% were women and girls, pointed out Dr Omolara Baiyegunhi, a research associate from the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), who said a whole lot more needed to be done to prevent spread of the disease.
Baiyegunhi said despite various tools being available – male and female condoms, daily oral pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), antiretrovirals and medical male circumcision to act against infection and the spread of the virus – there were still challenges.
“Some people don’t have the financial resources to access these tools, and those already taking medication for comorbidities are reluctant to take more medicine. An HIV vaccine would be more appealing as it did not need to be taken daily,” she said
However, Professor Thumbi Ndung’u, AHRI’s director of basic and translational science at AHRI, said that the multiple strains of the virus made it difficult to develop just one vaccine that would tackle all of them.
“Government, multidisciplinary scientists and communities need to come together,” he said, and buy-in from communities, particularly, was critical, because of the vaccine hesitancy during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Six HIV vaccines were already in research and development stages globally, in the US, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya, said Dr William Brumskine from the Aurum Institute.
He explained that the research was trying to target antibodies that would be responsive to all HIV strains, and spoke about a current African-led clinical trial into a PrEPVacc – a combination of PrEP and a vaccine, the results of which were anticipated at the end of 2023 or early in 2024.
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