Seven years ago I enrolled as a volunteer in a Swedish-Tanzanian study, called Hivis, to produce an effective vaccine against HIV. We are a group of healthy individuals in Sweden, Tanzania and Mozambique who regularly receive doses of a so-called DNA vaccine, in fact an incomplete DNA from the HIV virus. The aim is that our immune system should learn to recognize and successfully combat the ever-mutating virus. This has worked very well so far. Many of us hope that this study will lead to a real, workable vaccine.
Over the years I participated in the study, I have occasionally met concern from friends and acquaintances when I talk about this. ”But what if you get sick for real”, people have said. But in fact, is what I do totally harmless. The only negative effects I’ve experienced from the injections I had, is mild pain after being injected with a gas-driven device. And sometimes even milder flu symptoms a day or two after injection.
Easy things to bear if there’s actually a hope to help research in this area. In fact, thanks to my involvement in this my own mother also volunteered. And just over three months ago – on World AIDS Day on 1 December – she gave me an early 40th birthday present (my birthday is actually today) in the form of tickets for us two to Zanzibar for participation in an HIV vaccine conference, and to Dar es Salaam and the clinic at which the Tanzanian part of Hivis trial takes place.
During the conference, I was asked to share my experiences of being a volunteer, in front of a distinguished audience of mostly medical professionals. I was overwhelmed by their kind support. Equally overwhelming was meeting Tanzanian volunteers at the clinic in Dar. Many of them were recruited from the police force and prison service; lines of duty where one is likely to frequently come across people infected with HIV and AIDS. Although, HIV is scarily common in all sub-Saharan Africa.
During our meeting with the Tanzanian volunteers, we shared experiences and talked about how friends and families viewed our participation in the study. Me, recruiting my own mother – and getting strong support and encouragement from my wife and other family was regarded with curiosity. Many could bear witness of being met with fear and prejudice from loved ones for volunteering. In my mind, those volunteers are all heroes.
I am not going to bore you with every detail from the trip. We came home two and a half weeks ago and my head is still spinning from all the impressions. Instead of trying to describe what we did, saw and experienced, I thought I’d share some pictures: