An African scientist and her search for an HIV vaccine

Mara Ruiz
Mara Ruiz

Kundai Chinyenze, originally from Zimbabwe, lost her mother and father to AIDS when she was a teenager. Today, at 44 years of age, he is part of the largest global effort to find a vaccine capable of stopping HIV.

But it wasn’t always her dream to become a doctor. When I was a child I wanted to be a chemical engineer. His mother, who was a nurse, told him that it was better for him to study medicine, although Kundai did not like the idea.

Until one day, when he was 16 years old, his mother was admitted to a hospital in Hirare, the capital of Zimbabwe. When he went to visit her, he heard the nurses murmuring behind his back: “she is the daughter of the woman with AIDS”. At that time, he found out that his mother was living with HIV.

Decisive moment 

“I felt destroyed,” recalls Kundai, interviewed by the British newspaper The Guardian. “All I knew was ‘you got it, you’re dead,’ and I didn’t understand much beyond that.”

The girl waited to meet the attending physician and ask him about it, but he only managed to say “we don’t talk about this with the children.” The feeling of hurt and anger made her make a decision: to become a doctor and learn all she could about HIV.

His mother died shortly after this incident, and two years later the same thing happened to his father, also from AIDS-related complications.

Over time, Kundai fulfilled her goal of becoming a doctor, and in 2002 she helped establish the first specialized HIV clinic in her country. However, at that time, antiretroviral treatments, which since 1996 had proven useful in slowing the spread of the virus, were not available in Zimbabwe. “Those were dark days,” he recalls, “the moment you had the diagnosis, it was a death sentence.”

A new way

Faced with this scenario, where she did not have the tools to treat, Dr. Chinyenze began to investigate HIV prevention, which eventually led her to the area of ​​vaccines.

Today he lives in the United Kingdom and is part of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), where he collaborates in the Human Immunology Laboratory, located at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, in London.

Also within IAVI, she is a team leader on the ADVANCE program, a ten-year cooperative agreement with the United States government through the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR, for its acronym in English), a financing strategy that last January celebrated 20 years of having been created by former President George W. Bush.

The big challenge

Kundai Chinyenze faces a challenging and disappointing landscape every day. He explains that no one has been cured of the infection because “the body, by itself, does not know how to recover from HIV.” It is so that “since you do not have a human model of recovery, (with a vaccine) you are trying to teach the body something that it has not figured out how to do naturally.”

Even so, what keeps the research team motivated is the knowledge that, despite all the advances in HIV prevention (treatment that prevents infection, the success of antiretroviral therapy so that a person cannot transmit the virus), there is still an epidemic, a large number of new infections and people dying every day.

There is still much to do, but Chinyenze is determined that African scientists play a greater role in the work against HIV. “It is crucial that HIV research ceases to be the domain of developed countries that do not necessarily live reality or see it in their contexts, and include scientists and communities in affected areas, who understand the urgency,” he says. .

With the work of scientists like Kundai Chinyenze, the search for a vaccine will continue with enthusiasm. Meanwhile, protection against the virus is in your hands. At AHF Latin America and the Caribbean we work to bring you the necessary tools: free screening tests and free condoms. Locate our offices in your country and learn about all our services.