Where the Rubber Hits the Road…

May 5, 2016

It’s been an exciting month at AVAC for many reasons, but one of them is because AVAC’s Advocacy Fellows Program hit a milestone: with the welcoming of its seventh class, the program now boasts 50 Fellows and Alumni. In fact, that number is closer to 100 since working alongside each Fellow is a dedicated host [organization] supervisor. AVAC’s Advocacy Fellows Program supports emerging advocates in countries with ongoing or planned HIV prevention research and/or rollout of proven interventions. Fellows, with the support of a local host organization, develop and execute a 12-month work plan to address local or national policy or research gaps.

Since the program’s launch in 2009, 31 women and 19 men from China (1), Kenya (11), Lesotho (1), Malawi (4), Nigeria (2), Rwanda (2), South Africa (11), Uganda (7), Zambia (3), Zimbabwe (8) have used this opportunity to impact their respective countries’ HIV/AIDS agendas. These fearless advocates have played and continue to play a critical role in engaging in research processes, influencing policy, watchdogging, working with media, engaging global funding mechanisms, creating local and international synergies, and amplifying community voices in delivering, demonstrating and developing new HIV prevention and treatment options.

The 50-person mark was achieved in April 2016 when a new class of Advocacy Fellows started their one-year program. As has been the custom since the program’s inception, the year kicks off with an orientation workshop—and this year was no different as Fellows past and present gathered in Johannesburg April 11-13. At the workshop, 2016 Fellows got the opportunity to present their plans for the year ahead, receive feedback from peers, mentors and supervisors, build networks with colleagues from their respective countries and regions and to start the building blocks in biomedical HIV prevention research, implementation and advocacy around it. This workshop was also an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of the 2015 Fellows who graduated from the program.

The graduating Fellows had many wins worth celebrating—influencing major research funding decisions such as a recent one involving next steps of the microbicides rings (e.g., two 2015 Fellows, Anna Miti and Maureen Luba, were invited to a high-level meeting at the National Institutes of Health to help inform the next steps after positive efficacy results of two microbicide ring trials); executing evidence-based advocacy to influence guideline development and implementation plans, (e.g., PrEP in Kenya and South Africa); building coalitions with other civil society partners to identify needs and gaps and creating joint plans to address them, (e.g., viral load testing in Uganda, and coalitions pushing for PrEP for key populations including sex workers, men who have sex with men, and adolescent girls and young women in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe); advocating to influence funding, including with major donors such as PEPFAR and the Global Fund; building research and implementation literacy amongst civil society, policy makers and the media; and engaging key populations to ensure that HIV prevention research/rollout agenda is sensitive to their unique needs, among others.

What an opportunity this Fellowship gives to these emerging advocates! I’ve worked in the research field for a while, but this is the first time I’ve seen a deliberate effort to seek out someone from a marginalized group like sex workers and put them at the front and center of leading an advocacy project targeted at that group. We all need to do more of this,” said Kenyan researcher Dr. Kawango Agot, a Supervisor to a 2016 Fellow after a presentation on advocacy for PrEP for sex workers by 2015 Fellow Carolyn Njoroge.

The bar for excellence has been high since the program’s inception, and from what we saw at the workshop, the 2016 Fellows are up for the challenge. The new Fellows and their Supervisors vowed to move the HIV prevention research and implementation agenda to where it needs to be to impact the agenda today.

For the most part, the issues they will be tackling are similar to past Fellows, but the environment is different. For example, in Kenya and South Africa, Truvada (TDF/FTC) is now approved for use as PrEP for HIV prevention; in most priority countries, voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC) programs continued to rise yet funding to achieve the 80 percent coverage levels in target age groups remain elusive. The DREAMS Initiative is now underway at different levels in most of the countries where 2016 Fellows come from (Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa and Zambia); the field recently received positive results from the microbicide dapivirine ring; and new research on vaccines, antibodies for prevention, and long acting injectable PrEP has begun or is expected to begin in some of the Fellows’ countries. These are a few of the many issues that new Fellows will be grappling with and trying to influence over the next year.

The work that these advocates and their partners do, and where they do it, is where the rubber hits the road! To follow the current and Alumni Fellows’ work, go to the Fellows page.