According to reports, the new study is based on the only vaccine attempt ever to show even marginal effectiveness, in Thailand in 2009 — a two-vaccine combination that cut the risk of HIV infection by 31% over 3½ years. Those results weren’t effective enough to use outside of research, but scientists have started trying to modify and improve that combination.
Based on a small safety test done locally earlier this year, scientists decided that the modified vaccine was promising enough for a major study to probe if it really works. The new vaccine, funded in part by the U.S. government's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is using 5400 sexually active men and women between 18 and 35 at sites across the country as test subjects. The people in the study are all volunteers, who are randomly assigned to receive either five vaccine injections over a year or five placebo shots.
The results of the study are expected in 2020, but the scientific community is still continuing to work on other avenues. Because access to medical services remains a challenge in areas like sub-Saharan Africa, a growing range of HIV self-test kits are promising to help manage the epidemic.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has joined with UNITAID and global health non-profit PSI to run a self-test project. Called STAR, the project is seeing test kits being distributed in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, with plans to expand to South Africa. The test kits allow people to use oral fluid or blood from finger pricks to discover their status in a private setting. Those who test positive can then visit hospitals or clinics for confirmatory tests, counselling and treatment.
South Africa has more than 6.8 million people living with HIV, but our anti-retroviral programme has reached 3.1 million people, the largest such initiative in the world, according to Doctors Without Borders. Life expectancy has rebounded from 57.1 years in 2009 to 62.9 years in 2014. With a potential vaccine on the horizon, as well as easier access to testing through the self-administered test kits, there is hope on the horizon for South Africa’s youth, who are currently at the highest risk of catching the disease.
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