Canadian HIV vaccine researcher explores ways to engage at-risk youth

WINNIPEG, Feb. 23, 2015 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- In 2012, researcher Mark Brockman was among five Canadian principal investigators to receive funding through the Canadian HIV Vaccine Research Initiative (CHVI) for work in HIV vaccine discovery. His project on "Barriers to Engaging Young People in HIV Vaccine Trials in a Priority Setting" is exploring the social/behavioural, clinical and biomedical factors that increase the risk of HIV infection among adolescents and young adults and assessing challenges that prevent them from participating in trials. Brockman's team, based at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, is collaborating with researchers at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. The team is studying 400 HIV-negative South Africans aged 16 to 24 in Soweto, near Johannesburg, and in Durban, South Africa — two areas with particularly high rates of HIV in this age group. Dr. Brockman explains the premise behind the study in this Q &A:

Why is it important to get young people engaged?

It's important because young people, and particularly young women, are the major risk group for HIV infections in South Africa. We want to engage with young people, get them interested in their own health and have them recognize the potential benefits of testing and counselling for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Because this is a key population for rolling out an HIV vaccine when it becomes available, we are trying to introduce to the community what it is like to be involved in these sorts of long-term projects. We also want to provide a supportive environment where young people stay engaged and keep coming back.

Why are you doing this research in South Africa?

HIV prevalence remains high in many regions of sub-Saharan Africa, but South Africa continues to be among the worst affected nations. We have very good collaborators in Soweto and Durban that can conduct these studies efficiently, and we know that HIV vaccine clinical trials will be starting in South Africa in the coming year. We thought that this would be an important population to engage with, and hopefully the knowledge we gain will be useful for other HIV and STI programs.

Where are you at with this project?

Our project is called AYAZAZI – a Zulu word meaning "knowing themselves". It aims to enroll and track 400 HIV-negative adolescents and young adults. So far, our site in Soweto is open and 125 participants have been enrolled. We should meet our target of 200 in the next month or so. We are waiting for final ethics approval to start enrolling in Durban, but we plan to open there by mid-year. We have begun a preliminary analysis of social/behavioural and clinical data from the Soweto group already and we hope to present baseline data from this site later in 2015.

What will be the process?

We follow all participants prospectively, with study visits every six months. At each visit, individuals undergo HIV and reproductive health counselling, a social/behavioural interview, clinical testing for HIV and STIs, and provide a blood donation for biomedical research. We hope to have one to two years of follow-up data for all study participants, which will give us the ability to see how behaviours and knowledge change over time, particularly in younger people. Linked data collected on each participant should give us a better handle on their behaviour as well as the biological or clinical indicators of HIV risk that will be important for prevention.

Why should this research matter to Canadians?

Apart from the general sense that HIV is a global problem and that we should do our best to help areas of the world that are worse off than us, we hope to gain important knowledge about working with youth and other hard-to-reach populations. While we are doing our research in South Africa, identifying ways to really engage young people in making their own health decisions may uncover strategies that can be implemented in Canada as well — so that might be at-risk or homeless youth, or Aboriginal and First Nations populations.

What is expected at project completion?

Our goals are to have a well-established cohort to conduct multi-disciplinary research and to attract additional funding to help us sustain it beyond the end of this project (in late 2016). We hope that AYAZAZI can serve as a foundational cohort and a resource for other Canadian researchers who are interested in asking complementary questions around HIV risk in adolescents and young adults. We are also looking to partner with non-HIV researchers. We should have a good understanding of baseline risk factors in our populations, and because this is a longitudinal cohort we will have the ability to open up the cohort for future cross-sectional studies.

Dr. Brockman's work on this project is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada through the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI). The CHVI brings together five Government of Canada Departments/Agencies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to advance progress on HIV vaccine research and development efforts. It also contributes to the prevention of mother-to-child transmission. The establishment of the CHVI Research and Development Alliance Coordinating Office (ACO) at the International Centre of Infectious Diseases in Winnipeg in 2011 has facilitated information exchange, collaboration and coordination across diverse national and international research efforts.

For more information, contact:
Renée Barclay, Communications Specialist,
Alliance Coordinating Office, International Centre for Infectious Diseases
Email: aco-communications@icid.com

CONTACT: Renee Barclay, Communications Specialist, Alliance Coordinating Office, International Centre for Infectious Diseases Email: aco-communications@icid.com

Source:International Centre for Infectious Disease