Reflections on communicating hope from the ground up in commemoration of World AIDS Day

Earlier this year I lost a dear friend and confidant to Covid-19. Gita Ramjee was a globally renowned HIV prevention researcher who drew inspiration from the communities she worked with in South Africa, the world’s epicenter of the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Gita advocated for the need to develop more proven HIV prevention strategies to help women protect themselves from HIV. 

Human Immunodeficiency Virus, better known as HIV, was first identified as the cause of Acquired, Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in 1984, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) opened the first HIV vaccine clinical trial in 1987. The NIAID-funded HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN) is the world's largest publicly-funded collaboration to develop a vaccine for HIV/AIDS, and since its inception in 1999 has conducted more than 80 clinical trials in more than a dozen countries, involving more than 22,000 study participants.

As the scientific journey for a safe and effective preventive HIV vaccine continues, it is estimated that more than 75 million people have acquired HIV and more than 32 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the pandemic began. The decades-long search for an HIV vaccine may seem unending, but it took centuries to develop a vaccine for smallpox, which had a devastating 30% fatality rate but has since been completely eradicated. The need for a safe and effective preventive HIV vaccine is as urgent as ever.

In sharp contrast, the scientific path for a Covid-19 vaccine continues efficiently with Pfizer, Moderna and now AstraZeneca announcing vaccines with between 70% and 95% efficacy. Even with all of the recent good news, we still have a long way to go before a Covid-19 vaccine makes an impact at the grassroots level and communities feel safe because they have access to a vaccine and see a corresponding reduction in infection rates and hospital admissions. Ultimately, the effectiveness of a vaccine begins at the community level and works from the ground up. 

Serving as Director of Communications for the HVTN, I experience firsthand the challenges faced by those working in clinical research when there aren’t frequent groundbreaking outcomes to announce. In anticipation of this year’s World AIDS Day, I’ve reflected on the monumental task facing communications professionals working for global change organizations where change does not happen overnight. When we don’t (yet) have an HIV vaccine to announce, what can we say to communities that will not only save human lives but keep hope itself alive?

ending the hiv pandemic graphic

Remembering Individual Communities

Unfortunately, the more global a problem becomes the less personal it seems, and the easier it becomes to lose sight of the individual people and communities who are suffering most. One of the biggest challenges facing organizations tackling pervasive, long-standing health, economic and environmental catastrophes is staying in touch with the perspectives of those who are most affected, and sending the right messaging to help them keep up the fight. 

What would an HIV vaccine mean for a woman living in a developing nation? What would an HIV vaccine mean for people living in communities that are disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS in the United States, with nearly 40,000 new HIV diagnoses each year and where one in every seven American living with HIV is unaware of their status?

While the mission of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network is to develop a safe and effective preventive vaccine against HIV, the global research teams behind this work must also instill hope within families and communities around the world. This means staying connected to what all of us aspire to – leading fulfilling and meaningful lives regardless of our geographic and generational divides, and free from the impact of an epidemic such as HIV and AIDS. 

For HIV vaccine research, this means communicating about the currently ongoing clinical trials and the global efforts behind them, including the HVTN 706/HPX3002 (Mosaico) trial currently underway in Europe, South America, and the U.S., and the HVTN 705/HPX2008 (Imbokodo) trial taking place in Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Aziel Gangerdine, HVTN Director of Communications

"Ultimately, the effectiveness of a vaccine begins at the community level and works from the ground up. We must continue informing the public about current vaccine trials and enrolling eligible study participants across diverse communities."

— Aziel Gangerdine, HVTN Director of Comunications

Keeping Hope Alive

Highlighting other disease profiles and vaccine development processes is important to communicating the continued time and energy we must invest in order to complete each scientific journey. It’s also important for mission-driven organizations to continuously communicate all of the ongoing approaches to finding a solution. For HIV vaccine research, this means informing the public on current vaccine trials and enrolling eligible study participants across diverse communities.

The mission of communications professionals working for humanitarian organizations is not only to deliver vital information to the public from global experts and authorities, but to empower individuals to educate and protect themselves. Whether it’s Covid-19, HIV or the devastating effects of climate change, the race to find a solution to any one of these problems will inevitably be a marathon.

Gita stood tall and she believed that science and the many communities around the world would help us complete the scientific journey to find a safe and effective preventive HIV vaccine. We must remain steadfast and committed in our mission to finish the marathon as the world watches us edge to the finish line. But the only way to finish a marathon is by taking the next step, and continuing one step at a time.