Who do you love? Finding treasure at the last day of R4P

October 21, 2016

Greetings from the last official day of R4P 2016! It’s been a week of conversations, presentations, celebrations and—sometimes—consternation. And yes, it’s been a lot of words. New terms, familiar ones and the occasional Greek character (we’re talking to you α4β7 integrin).

Speaking of ancient Greek and also words: did you know that “treasure” and “thesaurus” share a common Greek relative? Thesaurus originally meant storehouse and treasure. From that, it was borrowed for the usage current today: a storehouse of words.

However, at the end of any gathering of this dynamic, dedicated field, what becomes clear is that the treasures are not the words but the people. The friends, fighters, thought leaders who propel this work forward. For our final update from the final day of HIVR4P, we offer you a round-up of (inter)national treasures.

Treasure 1: The adolescent girls and young women of western Kenya

Yesterday morning Kawango Agot (IRDO) presented data from a study in western Kenya aimed at understanding who adolescent girls and young women are having sex with—and why. This work is part of Kenya’s DREAMS initiative. Supported by PEPFAR, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and private sector partners, DREAMS is a multi-country effort aimed at reducing incidence in adolescent girls and young women by 40 percent by 2017. Success depends on identifying and reaching those girls and women most likely to acquire HIV—and to understand how and why they are at such high risk. The data from Agot’s presentation may not be not the last word, but it is a stirring example of research that clarifies the lived realities of people who need HIV prevention.

Young women and adolescent girls reported having sex because they wanted chips (French fries) or because they wanted someone to give them a ride. They said that they had sex for money and for prayers, which they hoped would help them to pass exams. Fifteen- to nineteen-year-old girls who were in school but lacking one or both parents reported that their teachers were the only men with whom they sometimes used condoms. Every column and cell of Agot’s slide contained a world. It is a world we all have to work together to imagine differently. We start this effort by recognizing how invaluable, beloved and needed these adolescent girls and young women are. They are resilient, resourceful, forthright—and urgently deserving of a world where they wake every day to a reality that treasures their young lives.

Treasure 2: Young African men making the decision to get circumcised

Thursday brought insights into the decision-making paths that men in sub-Saharan Africa travel before undergoing voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC). Tremendous progress has been made in rolling out VMMC in priority countries in the region. Continued success depends on acting on the kind of information presented today. Karin Hatzold (PSI) presented market research conducted by IPSOS that helped generate an understanding of how men make the decision to undergo VMMC—and how long this decision takes. As Hatzold described, an average of two years and three months passes between the time that a man becomes aware of VMMC and decides to undergo the procedure. These and other data were used to inform a strategy to create demand in specific target groups of men in Zimbabwe.

Later that day, Bertran Auvert of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) reported on a “short-time” intervention designed to increase uptake of VMMC in Orange Farm, South Africa. The site of the first randomized trial to show the impact of VMMC, Orange Farm had relatively stable prevalence of VMMC between 2010 and 2015. Since population-level impact depends on coverage, Auvert and colleagues designed a short, household-centered intervention and piloted it in 983 households in one site within Orange Farm. The intervention brought VMMC prevalence up from roughly 50 percent to 80 percent—a finding that supports further investigation of this approach. Why is coverage so important? John Stover (Avenir Health) gave a presentation on the estimated number of HIV infections averted by the rollout of VMMC in ten priority counties in Kenya. By 2015, over one million Kenyan men had undergone the procedure. Three different modeling groups calculated the number of infections averted—and all came to the same conclusion: by 2015 VMMC averted 5 percent of the HIV infections that would have happened in that period. Stover reported that the impact, and numbers of infections in both men and women that are averted by VMMC, only increases over time—a potent reminder of the need to pursue ambitious VMMC scale up as part of combination prevention.

None of this would be possible without the boys, young and adult men who undergo the procedure. It is a profound personal choice and one with tremendous impact on the effort to end AIDS. We treasure you.

Treasure 3: The CAPRISA 256 Antibody

“It’s a South African national treasure,” remarked a researcher to Penny Moore (University of the Witwatersrand) about CAP256, a broadly neutralizing antibody isolated from a South African living with HIV. Moore—who is an absolute treasure of lucid, engaging and enthusiastic information about all things antibody—described new insights into how CAP256 can show us how broadly neutralizing antibodies develop. We won’t seek to replicate her explanation in detail—check R4P for the webcast—but it appears that CAP256 is elicited by a rare group of HIV viruses that have holes in the sugary glycan shield that makes up most of the virus’s outer covering concealing key parts of the viral anatomy. (Antibodies emerge or are elicited by the parts of the virus that the immune system is able to “see”. The antibody then binds to that specific part of the virus. Many antibodies bind to HIV without impeding it. But some antibodies target hidden regions of HIV that may only be exposed for briefly when the virus is binding to a cell. These kinds of antibodies can neutralize and block HIV activity.)

Treasure 4: Omololu Falobi Award Winners

The fifth Omololu Falobi Award for Excellence in HIV Prevention Research Community Advocacy was presented as part of the closing. The award is given in memory of Nigerian activist Omololu Falobi. Falobi is remembered by friends and fellow advocates as a talented journalist, an activist for social justice, an advocate for prevention research and a son of Africa who worked tirelessly to ensure Africans were taking ownership of their own HIV care and prevention. Since 2008, the award has been presented in his memory as an ongoing legacy to recognize his commitment and lasting contributions to HIV prevention research advocacy, and to honor those who follow in his footsteps. In a break with tradition, on the 10th anniversary of Falobi’s passing, the honor goes not to an individual, but the prevention advocacy movement. The 2016 award celebrates 85 advocates from 19 countries, all nominated by their peers in the field. These advocates represent thousands who are part of the movement that has helped fuel the great progress the field has seen over the last decade. Profiles of the 85 honorees are available online at www.avac.org/falobi.

Treasure 5: Ward Cates

We probably would have started this list with Ward, a beloved and sorely missed friend, colleague, mentor and advocate who passed away earlier this year. But Ward would have argued to put young African women first—the way he always did in his work as a researcher dedicated to advancing the sexual and reproductive health rights of all women and girls. And then he would have told us that you can’t just talk about the women—that men matter too. And we agree, as the list reflects. And then he probably would have wanted us to highlight the work of a younger investigator emerging as a thought leader in the field. So we did that too. Not stopping there, Ward would surely have urged us to recognize the critical role of advocates in shaping the HIV response. And then, and only then, might he have allowed us to celebrate him, as two long-time colleagues and friends, Mike Cohen (UNC) and Helen Rees (WRH), both did in talks at the conference’s closing session. In a way, this whole list is for—and because—of you, Ward. You taught us who and what to treasure. We will always treasure you.

Check out all the webcasts online—and stay tuned for future updates as we unpack our bags and all the data and discussions from Chicago!