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Why I signed up for an HIV vaccine trial

In the past few weeks, Jane Mahlangu* has fallen into a routine that could make history as she prepared to become one of the first 100 people in the country to receive an experimental jab that could be the world’s best hope for an HIV vaccine.

She would wake up, get ready and leave the home she shares with her grandmother, aunt and cousins. As the day’s temperatures began to rise, she would begin what would become a familiar 20-minute walk through Soshanguve, north of Pretoria.

She had been preparing to become one of 5 400 other young South Africans between the ages of 18 and 35 who will enrol in the largest-ever HIV trial to be conducted in the country.

Next week, she will receive her injection of either the vaccine candidate or a dummy vaccine. She won’t know which one.

If she receives the real vaccine, it’s a jab that has been more than seven years in the making.

The HTVN702 trial is a randomised control trial, which means a group that receives the actual vaccine’s HIV infection rates will be compared with a group that receives a placebo.

For each of her six visits to the Setshabe Research Centre, in preparation for her jab, she was paid R250 to compensate her for her time and travel expenses. During these sessions, she was counselled about the potential side effects of the shot and on ways to prevent HIV. She’ll continue to receive this stipend each time she goes to the centre for the duration of the trial.

Her decision to join the historic trial may be one of the most important choices the 21-year-old human resource management student has ever made. But it came about in a decidedly unceremonious fashion: over drinks with friends.

“We were hanging out drinking wine on a Sunday. My friend said the study was in progress and that it would help HIV prevention. He was always talking about it and we didn’t take much time to listen — he talks too much. But then we got tired of hearing it every day so we listened and finally understood what he was trying to say all along.

“I thought about my friend. She’s HIV positive, and she keeps telling me about her problems. Her child is also HIV positive because she didn’t go to the clinic early enough when she was pregnant. I thought: ‘I can’t hurt my family’, ” she says.

A week later Mahlangu had enrolled in the trial.

When college starts again in January, she’ll submit her timetable to researchers so they can schedule her follow-up visits around her classes.

Mahlangu says: “I want people to come and join the study. It will mean a lot for our country. All of us, we have people in our families who are HIV positive. This has to stop.” 

* Not her real name

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