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HIV Vaccine Day: Nigerian stakeholders decry government apathy towards research


As the world today, Friday May 18, marks HIV Vaccine Day 2018, Nigerians, especially people living with HIV/AIDS believe the country has nothing to show the world in terms of research and vaccine development. Investigations by the Nigerian Health Online (NHO) reveals that in spite of the acknowledged efficacy and promise of the HIV vaccine, there seems to be no serious effort on the part of government to ensure the country contributes to global efforts towards the development of an effective  HIV vaccine, a situation condemned by scientists and people living with HIV/AIDS in the country.  JULIET UMEH writes.

Aside from worrying about swallowing her antiretroviral drug daily which she described as “overwhelming,”  Grace Odeyemi (not real name), an HIV positive mother, is more concerned about her five-year-old child who is also infected.

Her mood depicts frustrations as she bares her thoughts this sunny Saturday afternoon.  Although the blistering sun compels most  people in the vicinity to go under a shade, Odeyemi seems oblivious of the weather as she explains the daunting task of  achieving at least  95% compliance with  her treatment. Having lived with HIV for six years, she knows she must achieve full treatment compliance to keep the virus in check, which is becoming rather difficult each passing moment.

“Some of us have infant children that also come to hospital to access these drugs and when you travel without your child, how are you sure that the child will be taking his medication while you are away.

“At times, when you forget to take your drug or it gets finished and due to your busy schedule, you’ve not had time to refill, you are psychologically down,” the 41-year-old told NHO.

Odeyemi feels the Nigerian government is not doing enough in the area of vaccine research, “because we heard of so many developed countries that have started using the vaccine that could last them six months. Why is Nigeria backward? Does it mean that the government does not want the cure or prevention of HIV,” she asked?

Other respondents who spoke to NHO shared similar views with Odeyemi.

“We wear the shoe and we know where it pinches,” Peter Obialor said. In the scale of preference, Obialor, a coordinator of people living with HIV in Lagos feels Lagos state is doing better than the Federal Government of Nigeria in terms of awareness and funding.

“I’ve not seen what the Federal Government is doing in terms of research.”

As for Naco Ezieme, Coordinator of people living with HIV in the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, (NIMR), the Nigeria government,  from his assessment, is below pass mark as far as HIV research is concern from what he has seen so far, having lived with HIV for close to two decades.

However, he expressed that lack of federal government’s commitment towards vaccine research is not directly affecting him being that he is already positive but he is concerned by the number of new cases that are popping up which could have been prevented.

“Government should get more involved. We shouldn’t leave the treatment, care and support about HIV to foreign donors because they have tried for us. They also have their own economic challenges. So Nigeria government should own the programme and not be passive about it,” Ezieme opined while they all accepted to volunteer for vaccine experiment any day.

Odeyemi, Obialor, and Ezieme are among the 3.2 people estimated by UNAIDS to be living with HIV in Nigeria. The number sadly, ranked Nigeria as the second largest HIV epidemic globally after South Africa.

Although statistics from UNAIDS shows HIV prevalence among adults is remarkably small (2.9%) compared to other sub-Saharan African countries such as South Africa (18.9%) and Zambia (12.4%), the size of Nigeria’s population means 3.2 million people were living with HIV in 2016.

The key populations most affected by HIV in Nigeria are commercial sex workers, with an HIV prevalence of 14.4%, gay men and other men who have sex with men, with an HIV prevalence of 23%, people who inject drugs, with an HIV prevalence of 3.4%, UNAIDS says.

With the figures above, investigations proves Nigeria is still far behind on vaccine research. Internationally, countries such as South Africa and Thailand are already on HIV vaccine clinical trial.

Dr. Chika Onwuamah
Senior Research Scientist, NIMR

A senior research scientist in NIMR, Chika Onwuamah told NHO that the only facility for vaccine production in NIMR is down and not really working though it can be easily reactivated  by government if desired.

Onwuamah who is the head of the Center for Human Virology and Genomics at the institute says making the vaccine is not so much the issue right now but the research that needs to be done for it. To be able to part of the ongoing global HIV research, “government really needs to invest a lot of money so that we will also be involved in the basic research,” Onwuamah said.

He however noted: “Recently, our institution was given some money. The least you can get is about 1.5m to help you work on any of the health challenges. “It is very small but it’s a start. It has never been there for a long time,” he remarked

On how researchers cope, he said most of what they do is to work with international organizations.

“We rely on their funding and that means, it is what they are interested in that we can work on. He also wants Nigerian government to understand that research is not a product when they come to the same table to defend budget with the people that are into manufacturing, noting that all the years into HIV research globally that the best they have is 31% and that is a lot.

“Polio vaccine took 47 years until they got something and funds were gone into those years. So here we are, what funds are we using to work with? If government will put some money and sustain it over the while, Nigeria has brilliant scientists and people that will do a lot and we will make our country proud,” adding that Nigeria has a different stain of HIV from other part of the world.

“Even the type found in northern Nigeria is different from the Southern Nigeria,” Onwuamah pointed.

Dr Oliver Ezechi, Deputy Director of Research /Head, Clinical Sciences, NIMR thinks in the same line. He believes the most things that change the world are not tangible. He said until Nigerians decide that research is important and decides to support research we cannot move far.

Like Onwamah, Dr Ezechi encouraged government to invest in research by budgeting for research and innovations of which he said HIV is included and also urged prominent rich Nigerians to also invest and support research as it’s done abroad.

Ezechi also pointed that the strain of HIV in Nigeria is different from other parts of the world. “So what it means is that if they continue researching with those other strains and once the vaccine is available it might not work for us.

He noted that the world has done well when it comes to HIV, comparing the situation of their clinic to decades ago when people were dying every day.

“But that is no longer the case, it is a step and the next step now is that if HIV must be eradicated completely vaccine is the answer.

“So I call the government and the people of Nigeria that we need to key into vaccine of HIV so that when the world discovers vaccine for HIV, we will also say we invested this amount of money into that,” Dr. Ezechi advised.

Dr Oliver Ezechi
Deputy Director of Research /Head, Clinical Sciences, NIMR

Head of department, Clinical Science Division in NIMR, Agatha David, believes a vaccine is better than a cure because it prevents especially prophylaxes and therapeutic vaccines which she noted that none is on ground yet. In the mean time, she advised people to keep taking their drugs the way it is recommended so that they can remain healthy when the vaccine eventually comes.

Also speaking, Florita Durueke, the programme manager, New HIV Vaccine and Microbicide Advocacy Society (NHVMAS), an organization committed to developing effective HIV vaccines and other biomedical tools, told NHO that NHVMAS is looking forward to working with other global experts on the field to see how the world could have a HIV vaccine.

On HIV Vaccine Day 2018 message, she said they are working hard to ensure that Nigerians are not left behind in the HIV vaccine enterprise.

“So we are looking at effective vaccines that are cost effective, available, accessible and importantly will be delivered as a comprehensive package for community’s use.”

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