Stories From the Field:


Towards a ‘Social Vaccine’ for HIV/AIDS

With antiretroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS widely available and caregivers as aware and attentive to the disease as never before, why is South Africa still experiencing relentless growth in infection among youth and young adults?

It’s a question that deeply concerns Bruce Walker, MD, a Massachusetts General Hospital infectious disease specialist who is working on a vaccine for HIV/AIDS, and he has long recognized the need for a behavioral approach in concert with medical solutions. Dr. Walker has a long-standing history of providing clinical care and doing research and medical training in KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa, where HIV/AIDS rates are the world’s highest. So he turned to Steven Safren, PhD, director of Behavioral Medicine at Mass General with a focus on HIV/AIDS.

“Even all the best kinds of medical interventions like antiretroviral therapy and a potential vaccine are not likely to eradicate HIV anytime in the near future.”
-Dr. Steven Safren, director of Behavioral Medicine at MGH

The two began to brainstorm about how they might arrive at what they call a “social vaccine” for HIV prevention, and one that might be useful for other areas of the world, as well, where the prevalence of the disease is high. After all, with the staggering numbers of infected individuals, a no-holds-barred approach is in order: in sub-Saharan Africa overall, 22.4 million people have HIV/AIDS and HIV prevalence among adolescents and young adults aged 15-30is among the world’s highest.

So Dr. Safren’s team recently began conducting a series of studies in South Africa that focus on assessing these behavioral factors, with the ultimate goal of finding new behavioral interventions.

“There is an urgent need to better understand the environments and contexts in which sexual risk behaviors occur among adolescents and young adults in South Africa. We hope that these studies will lay the groundwork for developing a culturally relevant HIV prevention intervention for this population,” says Dr. Safren.

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