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New HIV infections still high despite advances made in research

Some  54 young scientists from the Sub-Saharan African Network of TB/HIV Research Excellence (SANTHE) are among over 150 health scientists from Africa and beyond that just finished showcasing cutting-edge research aimed at fighting HIV/AIDS and TB.

The  scientists who gathered in Nairobi for three days for a landmark scientific meeting saw some of them making significant progress on new strategies to prevent HIV infections among some key population groups affected.

Speaking to KNA during the consortium meeting, the SANTHE’s Programme Director, Thumbi  Ndung’u said despite advances made in addressing the problem of both TB and HIV, the number of new infections remain high.

“The research we are working on is on what we can do to prevent new HIV infections and also address the question of what are public health problems of those living with HIV/ TB infections,” he said.

There is significant scientific progress on new development of strategies for curing HIV, on how to prevent and treat TB better among population groups affected such as young women, men who have sex with men and HIV discordant couples.

Ndung’u emphasized that coming from prevention of HIV overtime through Abstinence, Be Faithful and Condom use (ABC) method, to the Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) method where one takes a pill daily, there is still more research needed.

“The bad news is that the number of new infections has not gone down and this is a big problem for SSA because one wants people to go on treatment but also reduce new infections, but unfortunately many new infections are still happening,” he said.

Here in Kenya, Ndung’u said, they have done some research and working with Men Having Sex with Men (MSMs) in Kilifi County who have a high risk of HIV infections in order to prevent new infections

“We want to prevent the infections and we are working with them in the uptake of the PrEP and have developed guidelines and working with the ministry of health and researchers at KEMRI to see how the guidelines can be implemented,” said Ndung’u who also is based at Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) Wellcome Trust Research Programme (KWTRP).

In South Africa, Ndung’u added that they are working with young women of South Africa who are at high risk. Through innovative study where they are actually seeking ways of how of how to come up with a HIV cure by treating early, he said.

In Botswana, Ndung’u said that a lot of progress is being seen through development of a new drug resistance considering HIV tests are currently very expensive.

“Researchers in our network have developed a laboratory test that is much cheaper and can be used for drug resistance,” he said.

Ndung’u explained that there are studies all over the world on PrEP and how they can reduce it from a pill a day since studies have shown that people in Sub Saharan Africa are not adherent to PrEP as a daily pill.

“Currently if you take a pill a day of PrEP, it will prevent you from getting HIV. It is effective, it works but unfortunately for many reasons that have to do with the social behavioral issues people are not taking it. We want to explore in the future and there is some research going on in the various places around the world to test whether one can use long acting PrEP,” he said.

At the moment, he confirmed that there are no proven and no medical study which has proven that long acting PrEP can work and it is not available to the general population so research now is more focused on how people can take one daily pill since it is what is available.

“In future we hope that there will be long acting PrEP available but it should also be noted that although PrEP is very effective, some people have had problems and difficulties in taking it so we also want to see whether we can develop a vaccine,” he said.

A lot of their work, he said is based on whether they can develop the vaccine noting that giving and injection so that someone can be completely protected from HIV for at least five year or even two years is a sure way of protection to HIV infections.

Ndung’u reiterated that a vaccine would have the greatest impact in reducing new infections, but unfortunately with no vaccine at the moment research has to continue to promote PrEP which is available.

“How do we help people using the current technologies available such as PrEP and at the same time look into the future trying to develop a vaccine; this is how our research works,” he quipped.

The good news about Sub Saharan Africa (SSA), Ndung’u however said is the progress that has been made by governments in addressing HIV/ Aids unlike in the past when people were dying.

Nowadays  not many people are dying of HIV. They are living longer and their quality of life improved primarily because of the Anti-Retroviral (ARVs)

SANTHE, Ndung’u said, is supporting mid-career scientists some of whom are developing to independent researchers leaders on the African continent.

He  noted that designed primarily as a platform of trainees who showcase scientific studies and the likely impact of health research, Ndung’u said that they have been working through building capacity especially for female scientists who traditionally have been disadvantaged.

“60 percent of PhD students recruited in this programme are female and this shows we are addressing the barriers of female scientists being included in science by giving them grants,” Ndung’u said.

Funding  for  HIV programmes around the world is however going down and Ndung’u advised countries to use the money under various programmes of HIV well since at the moment drugs that are the only ones that can be used.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) only 60 percent of HIV infected people who live in Sub Saharan Africa are on ARVs. This means that out of the 24 million people living with HIV, only 14 million are on ARVS

Africa  is also underrepresented in terms of scientific research according to Ndung’u, saying that Africa is only going to be successful in addressing its health challenges through research.

By  Wangari  Ndirangu

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