Researchers in South Africa have launched trials of a promising vaccine they hope will help prevent the spread of the deadly HIV/AIDS virus. Three thousand volunteers are being injected with the vaccine over the next few years. VOA's Scott Bobb visited the site of one of the trials, in Soweto's Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital outside Johannesburg and has this report.
Thabo is a bit nervous as he enters a clinic in South Africa's largest hospital to join the Phambili project. Phambili means "forward" in the local Zulu language.
Thabo is one of the first of 3,000 volunteers to receive the vaccine. The vaccine has undergone preliminary trials on humans in the Americas and is proven to be safe. Now it is being tried on a broader population to test its effectiveness. If successful, the trials will be further expanded as a first step toward licensing and marketing.
In this country where more than 10 percent of the population is infected with AIDS, researchers hope the vaccine will boost resistance to HIV or at least slow its progression into full-blown AIDS.
They are also keen to test the vaccine here because the strain of HIV in Africa is different from the one in America. It infects primarily heterosexual people rather than homosexuals and infects more women than men. If the vaccine is successful, it would go a long way toward developing a global vaccine.
Thabo, in his mid-20s and unemployed, says he hopes to help in that battle. "Because I've got friends and members of the family that are infected with AIDS. And then I hope to see a cure for AIDS in the future. Yes, that will come."
Thabo says he is not afraid. He knows the vaccine contains several genetically engineered proteins of the HIV virus, but not the actual virus itself. So he cannot get AIDS from the vaccine.
Muzi Mkhwanazi is a former model who recruits volunteers for Phambili in Soweto. He is looking for men and women between 18 and 35 years old who do not have HIV. Muzi explains that half of the volunteers will receive the vaccine. The other half will receive an injection but with no vaccine, a placebo.
The volunteers are encouraged to practice safe sex and are given free condoms and free testing. Anyone who contracts HIV will receive free treatment including anti-retroviral drugs.
Mzimbulu says he volunteered because he wanted to know whether he had HIV. "Yes, I was protecting myself in the past but there was some circumstances. You know life is full of surprises. You can get sick and you don't know what kind of disease it is like."
Organizers urge the volunteers to practice safe sex because nobody wants them to come down with AIDS. But they know that, nevertheless, some will get the virus.
Project Director Busi Siwe Nkala says that after two decades of handing out condoms and preaching safe sex it is clear that these methods are not working. She hopes a vaccine will.
"If the vaccine can be available, people don't have to go through things that they feel are not natural," she says.
The head investigator for the nationwide trials, Dr. Glenda Gray, says this project is important because HIV in Africa, unlike in America, strikes women more than men.
"This trial is also very important because we've enrolled a lot more women than anywhere else in the world and we believe women may have different immune responses than men and maybe vaccines are more effective in women than in men. And so we will be able to answer the issues around immunity and gender in this trial."
She says if the vaccine proves to be even 30 percent effective it will be considered a success.
AIDS carries a heavy stigma here. Most of the volunteers did not want to have their faces shown. But they all want to know whether they have HIV.
Several of these young people will probably contract HIV. According to statistics only half of them will live to be 60 years old. But if the vaccine is even partially successful their odds of survival will increase significantly.