10/03/2015 8:07 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST


I am often surprised by how few people realize that HIV/AIDS is the world's leading cause of death among women of reproductive age. This disease takes an enormous and unacceptable toll on the lives and potential of millions of women - and on the families, communities and economies they support.

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DHAKA, BANGLADESH - 2014/12/01: An organized colorful rally attended by sex workers, lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgenders (LGBT) with their banners and placards in front of the National Assembly House during the 'World AIDS Day' celebration. (Photo by Mohammad Asad/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

I am often surprised by how few people realize that HIV/AIDS is the world's leading cause of death among women of reproductive age. This disease takes an enormous and unacceptable toll on the lives and potential of millions of women - and on the families, communities and economies they support.

Women are more susceptible to HIV for biological reasons. In the epidemic's hardest-hit regions, deep gender inequity limits women's access to potentially life-saving information, prevention and treatment as well as their ability to negotiate safe sex. In South Africa, for example, nearly 1 in 7 cases of HIV in women were found to stem from sexual partner violence. Poverty forces many women into the sex trade, further decreasing their power and increasing the stigma barriers to their accessing HIV prevention and treatment.

An AIDS vaccine will be a powerful tool to help women redress some of these lethal imbalances in sexual and gender dynamics. Delivered confidentially, before exposure to the virus and invisible to partners and peers, a vaccine will help empower women to protect themselves - and their families and societies - against this deadly disease.

Happily, many women are also leaders in the effort to bring the world an AIDS vaccine - from scientists, medical professionals and advocates to participants in clinical trials. As IAVI partners with a wide range of organizations and institutions to design and develop a safe and effective AIDS vaccine, I am proud every day to work alongside a great number of these remarkable women. To mark this year's International Women's Day, I'd like to introduce you to four of them.

In the Clinic and the Community

Kundai Chinyenze, IAVI's Medical Director for Medical Affairs based in Nairobi, ensures that IAVI and our partners conduct clinical trials and epidemiological studies to the highest international standards and practices. She has an MD and a master's in public health and has trained clinicians across East and Southern Africa. As a teen-ager in Zimbabwe, she lost both her parents to AIDS in the space of two years; she only found out what was wrong when she heard nurses outside her mother's hospital room whispering about "HIV." She says: "The doctor refused to say anything. Both my parents were diagnosed late and, even though I was one of their caregivers, I was not told what ailed them or how I could better support them or protect myself from infection. I may not have been able to save my parents, but I have an opportunity with IAVI to work in the development of a vaccine that can help thousands of others who are as helpless as I was."

Matshidiso Malefo is Social Science Coordinator at the Rustenburg Research Centre of IAVI partner The Aurum Institute. Ms. Malefo works on socio-behavioral and epidemiological studies related to HIV prevention in the South Africa mining town, where women and girls are at an especially high risk of HIV infection. She says: "An AIDS vaccine is the best hope for helping the most vulnerable women take control of their own HIV prevention without needing permission from their partners. Having an AIDS vaccine will give women courage and strength. I have two daughters. A vaccine needs to come for the sake of our kids."

In the Lab

Shreyasi Chatterjee is a project manager in the HIV Vaccine Translational Research Laboratory in Delhi, a joint venture between IAVI and the Government of India to design and evaluate immunogens that elicit an immune response capable of neutralizing a broad spectrum of HIV's variants. She says: "India has the world's third-highest number of people with HIV. Access to health care is a basic human right, but the low socio-economic status of women, especially in India's patriarchal society and rural areas, means that HIV-positive women routinely face targeted stigma and discrimination. An affordable AIDS vaccine could prevent infection in millions of women, especially those who are unable to negotiate safer sex due to social and cultural norms."

Gladys Njeri Macharia, a researcher with another IAVI partner, the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), recently completed a master's degree supported by Wellcome Trust and began PhD studies at IAVI's Human Immunology Laboratory at Imperial College London. Currently training at Emory University in Atlanta, Ms. Macharia focuses on the earliest T-cell mediated responses against HIV; the techniques she learns will benefit her own studies and support the efforts of many other HIV vaccine researchers when she returns to KEMRI. Ms. Macharia's training is part of a broader IAVI partnership, funded by USAID, to enhance African scientific leadership in the effort to design, develop and evaluate an effective HIV vaccine for Africa. She says: "HIV/AIDS was a message in your face growing up in Kenya even if you didn't know anyone infected. At my university we all had to take a module on HIV infection whatever you were studying. Millions of people who live with HIV still can't access treatment. It is enormously challenging to design an effective HIV vaccine - but a vaccine is essential to ending the epidemic."

Please join me in saluting these and many other remarkable women on this International Women's Day and every day. Together, we will achieve a world without AIDS.