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Prostitutes the Losers in AIDS Vaccine Saga

By Kwamchetsi Makokha, The Nation (Nairobi), Analysis, 20 October 2000

Nairobi - It may be the oldest profession, but it certainly is not just what the NGOs would call a growth area. There are risks and dangers of injury, disease and death, just as there may be rewards accompanying the rising demand for sex services.

The people who work in the comfort industry have been called prostitutes, madams, courtesans and escorts - terms that are not flattering by any means. But thanks to politically correct language, they are nowadays called commercial or survival sex workers. Their trade flourishes in the midst of prudish, religious and extremely moralistic societies - such as the Kenyan one.

There have been calls to register and tax prostitutes. All of these have, however, been roundly dismissed on the basis of fears that it would encourage flesh peddling.

In Nairobi alone, some 250,000 people are thought to be directly involved in prostitution.

That kind of number makes prostitutes a very important social group in the struggle to check the spread of Aids. In the past 10 years, prostitutes have, however, done a little better than just accept and use condoms from Aids control programme officials.

They are playing an important role in continuing research for an Aids vaccine. Ever since it was discovered that some women in Nairobi's Majengo area were not contracting HIV - even after repeated exposure to the virus - scientists started toying with the idea of developing a vaccine. The women have been found to have killer T-cells that demolish HIV and thus make them immune to it.

It has been 10 years of work, in which hopes have been raised that a solution to the Aids problem, now killing some 500 Kenyans every day, may be at hand. Microbiologists from the University of Nairobi has been working with Oxford University researchers to develop a vaccine that would stimulate the generation of such cells in other human beings.

It is a serious effort which received financial endorsement from the International Aids Vaccine Initiative and was mentioned at the Aids conference in South Africa as one of the glimmers of hope in the battle against the epidemic.

In the past week, however, a major controversy over the vaccine research has snowballed from a mere oversight in acknowledging Kenyan scientists' efforts to a total denial of their input.

The story coming from London last week was that the British scientists who were working on the research with their Kenyan counterparts had rushed to register the patent for the vaccine to prevent anyone else from claiming credit for it.

The vaccine was not supposed to be a profit-driven enterprise. The money is, however, difficult to ignore if one considers the threat that Aids represents to the world. The honour that would accompany the discovery of a vaccine is Nobel- size.

This week, however, the Oxford University team sent a shocker. It classified the Kenyans who participated in the project as among those who "may have performed certain experiments but who did not provide intellectual input". It is difficult to tell whether the theory for this research was developed elsewhere and the experiments just carried out in Kenya. But it does not sound good.

In plain British English, there were no Kenyan inventors. Dr Job Bwayo, Dr Aggrey Anzala and Prof Jeckoniah Ndinya-Achola, who worked with the British scientists, were no more than laboratory hands.

It is a difficult assertion to believe.

Dr Bwayo alone has a 30-page CV that does not mention the primary schools he went to. It is a catalogue of research projects and published scientific papers. This then is the man who led a team of research hands in doing manual work for the Oxford scientists.

Nothing wrong with that.

There is nobility, too, in being a research spanner-boy. Trouble is that the Oxford scientists are telling us that for the past seven years, our scientists have been lying to the whole country. That they were claiming credit for something they had nothing to do with. It is stunning.

The alienation of Kenyan scientists is not the only thing the British scientists want to do. They are saying that even the research subjects in the study were not there.

Two additional strokes were added to the scientists' denial of Kenya's involvement: One is that the information on the Majengo women was already in the public domain. Secondly, that the new information in the patent does not include data obtained from the research on the Nairobi sex workers, "although some of the Oxford work involved studying the women".

What is very disturbing is that a similar study in the Gambia on commercial sex workers by the same team also found some women to have killer T-cells. It is instructive that the Oxford scientists did not develop a vaccine to be tried in that country.

The vaccine that has been designed is specifically meant to tackle HIV strains prominent in Kenya and in East Africa. This has been done because of the Oxford scientists' "interest and concern" for the Aids situation in Kenya.

They also remember their happy experience of working with the Kenyan team and no doubt look forward to working with them. Nothing could be as patronising as that.

Kenyans are not supposed to feel cheated since there are still opportunities to contribute to the patent. In the event of such a contribution being needed, they will be acknowledged and paid. After all, there is still a lot of work to be done.

And then there is the issue of clinical trials which have been scheduled for this December. Those ones, the Oxford researchers will certainly pay for.

The Oxford researchers expect to be led to Majengo again, on the basis of trust. For now, Kenya has no legal rights over any proceeds from the vaccine. Whatever crumbs the Oxford team chooses to drop will be purely out of the generosity of their hearts. It is a preposterous presumption, but again extremely possible.

It is difficult to stand in the way of genuine efforts to rid the world of Aids. It is something the British scientists are banking on. Or perhaps they hoping to go somewhere else and build on what they reaped from here.

We can all blame Kenyan scientists for not being aware that there was a chance of their being treated this way. But Dr Bwayo, Dr Anzala and Prof Ndinya- Achola are not lawyers or politicians. It is amazing how the Government did not try to get involved in their work. It is disheartening that the Kenya Intellectual Property Organisation sat and waited to be approached instead of seeking how it could be helpful.

The University of Nairobi cannot be blamed for trying. At least it had a skeletal memorandum of understanding.

The problem, however, lies in not having laws and structures that protect Kenyans from these kinds of embarrassing situations. And it is not just the scientists.

The Majengo women who were the research subjects of this study are about to be alienated from it, and it looks as if there is nowhere for them to go. Instead, come December, the country and the international community will want them to volunteer for vaccine trials.

Copyright 2000 The Nation. Distributed by allAfrica.com. For information about the content or for permission to redistribute, publish or use for broadcast, contact the publisher.