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Uganda finalizes research on injectible HIV drug

Silja Fröhlich | Alex Gitta
March 3, 2020

A new HIV treatment, injected every eight weeks, is supposed to reduce stigma and discrimination in Uganda. The drug could be a breakthrough for all those infected — if African leaders are ready to invest.

Hands holding HIV ribbons
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Jagadeesh

The Uganda Aids Commission is finalizing clinical trials on a new injectable treatment for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the Director General of Uganda Aids Commission, Dr Nelson Musoba, announced this week. The government is planning to unveil the treatment 2021.

Musoba told people gathered in Kampala to commemorate Zero Discrimination Day that the treatment will reduce discrimination in Uganda. Up to 21% of men and 20% of women there don't take their HIV medication due to a fear that their status will become known and they will face discrimination, according to the 2019 Stigma Index for people living with HIV (PLHIV). 

Uganda wants to end the prevalence of HIV as a major public health threat by 2030. "Research is in advanced stages on the injectable treatment for HIV that patients will take one dose after every eight weeks. This new treatment comes with a lot of relief and convenience,” Musoba said.

The injectable treatment is designed to reduce the burden of taking tablets on a daily basis. At the moment, a person living with HIV, the virus which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), is required to take more than two tablets at different times of the day, depending on their viral load. Also, the injectable treatment would be a huge step towards reducing the number of new infections.

More convenience

Elvis Basudde has been living with HIV for 18 years. He has been receiving antiretroviral therapy since 2002 and cannot wait for the injectable treatment to be launched. "If it really comes to pass, everybody would welcome it, we earnestly need that kind of injectable treatment," Bassude told DW.

"It would mean you do not have the hustle, the burden of having to swallow the tablet and the strict adherence to treatment is what defeats most of the people who are living with HIV. But the moment they inject you with that drug, it becomes pretty easy for you to live on."

Sign with the inscription "I am living positively with HIV"
Many people living with HIV are facing discriminationImage: picture-alliance/imageBROKER/F. v. Poser

Closer to curing HIV

In 2018, an estimated 1.4 million Ugandans were living with HIV, and about 23,000 died of AIDS-related illnesses, according to HIV and AIDS education organization Avert. 8.8% of adult women are living with HIV, compared to 4.3% of men. Other groups affected by HIV in Uganda are sex workers, young girls, and adolescent women, men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs and people from Uganda's transient fishing communities. 

Prejudices and social discrimination are some of the leading causes for those affected to avoid seeking health care or HIV testing, according to Avert. The issues faced by people living with HIV include gender-based violence and a lack of access to education, health services, social protection and information about how to cope with these inequities and injustices.

A woman infected with the HIV virus takes her medicine in a refugee camp near Gulu in Uganda.
At the moment, patients have to take HIV treatment on a daily basisImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The future in the fight against HIV is promising. "We are confident that we get science to prove that a lot can be done in terms of treating or administering ARVS in different ways," Sarah Nakku from the United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) told DW. "If using different strategies, we are probably moving closer to the science that could even help us to discover and to know how actually cure HIV."

Major breakthrough — if affordable

Most people living with HIV in Uganda are enrolled on HIV treatment. Nelson Musoba from the Ugandan AIDS Commission believes that new infections will reduce if the treatment is made easier. "Over 90% of our patients are taking a single pill per day. We went from no treatment to 20 pills a day to a single pill a day."

A baby playing at the HOKISA childrens home in Masiphumelele, Cape Town, South Africa. HOKISA stands for Homes For Kids In South Africa where children living with and affected by HIV and AIDS are cared for.
20.6 million people lived with HIV in Eastern and Southern Africa in 2018 - 1.1 million of them are childrenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Bothma

The injectable treatment is also an antiretroviral one, used through a different method of administration, Musoba said. "It's convenient, it promotes adherence, it will reduce stigma significantly because stigma continues to be an issue. We are hopeful that even the vaccine will come, it is ongoing research."

Along with Swaziland, Kenya, Malawi, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, Uganda is one of seven countries participating in the trial.

The treatment could be a major breakthrough if it is affordable for an ordinary African. "We hope that it will be cost-effective for us so that at least our state and the government can pay instead of waiting for donors", said Luc Armand Bodea of the Society for AIDS in Africa. "What we need now is the commitment of leadership in Africa. We should not always wait for donors." Now the only thing missing for the injectable drug to be launched are the necessary approvals.

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DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.