HIV-Resistant Kenyans Spur Vaccine Hopes: Some Prostitutes Test Negative in Spite of Years of Heavy Exposure to Virus

By Orr, David | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 14, 1997 | Go to article overview

HIV-Resistant Kenyans Spur Vaccine Hopes: Some Prostitutes Test Negative in Spite of Years of Heavy Exposure to Virus


Orr, David, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


NAIROBI, Kenya - Monica Marwa, 25, lives in the notorious Majengo slum on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital and charges between 50 and 75 cents for sex.

There is nothing extraordinary about her line of work - or her fees. It is estimated that more than half of the women in Majengo sell their bodies for such paltry rewards.

What is surprising is that, despite years of unprotected sex and exposure to the human immunodeficiency virus, she seems to be immune to AIDS.

Hers is one of about 40 similar cases in Majengo, cases that scientists believe could hold the key to an AIDS vaccine.

In a program bringing the University of Nairobi together with the University of Washington, the University of Manitoba in Canada and Oxford University in England, researchers are mapping the genes of Majengo's HIV-resistant women in an effort to discover what it is that protects them from infection.

"We are taking blood from the HIV-negative women and their relatives, as well as from some women who have tested positive," says Dr. Ephantus Njagi, whose work at Majengo's clinic for commercial sex workers is at the forefront of the research program.

"At the moment, we believe some women have a genetic makeup which enables them to produce something which kills off the virus. Eventually we hope it will be possible to produce a vaccine which will immunize people against AIDS."

It is estimated a million people in Kenya - more than 7 percent of the population - are infected with HIV. In some areas of Nairobi, 20 percent to 30 percent of adult women coming for prenatal check-ups are infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

HIV resistance is currently considered the "hottest" area of AIDS research. To date, most studies on the subject have been confined to homosexual men in the United States.

Nearly 1,900 commercial sex workers have been documented since the clinic at Majengo was opened just over 10 years ago. In that time, about 400 of the women have died of AIDS. More than 90 percent of the clinic's clients are HIV-positive. …

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