Editorial Comment

HIV and Aids has ravaged nations, Zimbabwe included, killing millions of mostly the productive age groups. Over the years, researchers have been working on a vaccine which would halt the rampant infections.

And now finally some good news: A promising African-led clinical trial PreVacc is underway and if successful, many lives will be saved with just a few shots. Zimbabwe will be one of the countries where the trial will be conducted.

A vaccine that can prevent infection would condition the immune system to respond to HIV by making antibodies that can arrest the virus and stop it from infecting cells, or by promoting other immune responses that kill the virus altogether.

Although no vaccine is 100% effective, finding an effective one is critical for the HIV response.

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The magnitude of the disease cannot be underestimated with statistics showing that 1,8 million people became infected with HIV in 2017, while 36,9 million people were living with HIV and 21,7 million receiving anti-retroviral therapy.

Even with the scale-up of highly-effective prevention and treatment tools, the decline rate of new infections is not adequate to bring the HIV epidemic to an end.

For countries like Zimbabwe, despite dramatic improvements in access to anti-retroviral therapy this is still an expensive option, given the many challenges in providing affordable medication to those that are in need. There are perennial shortages of anti-retroviral drugs as well as supportive mechanisms and equipment. Viral load machines in public hospitals are not working and given the current price hikes of basic food commodities, many people living with Aids may not get the appropriate nutritional needs.

Good nutrition is a key component for a successful treatment plan. Nutritional status and the progression of HIV are strongly interrelated. HIV infection increases the body’s energy needs while it diminishes appetite and decreases the body’s ability to digest food and absorb nutrients. This leads to malnutrition, which in turn accelerates the HIV infection.

This scenario is an indication that a vaccine is needed, especially for the adolescents.

A model developed by the International Aids Vaccine Initiative has estimated that a vaccine that can stop 70% of infections would reduce new infections by 44% in the first 10 years after the projected introduction in 2027. By 2070, a vaccine that was 70% effective would reduce new infections by 78%.

The cost of administering a vaccine is substantially lower than providing PrEP or HIV treatment. By preventing new infections and reducing the cost of prevention, an HIV vaccine would improve the sustainability of the HIV response.