HIV advocate Cathy Murombedzi upbeat about HIV cure

A bullish veteran journalist and Health Communicators Forum (HCF) vice chairperson Catherine Murombedzi is among the hopefuls who live to tell this tale.

By Kudakwashe Pembere

Seeing her feels like reliving the biblical times when Jews waited for the Messiah. Having kept her faith, Cathy is upbeat she will see the HIV cure in her lifetime.

I am certain an HIV Cure is possible. There was no treatment at the onset of HIV in the early 1980s up to the 90s, but here we are today, there is anti-retroviral therapy, (ART) to restore lost immunity giving a person infected a new lease of life,” she says.

Cathy learnt of her status at an antenatal clinic.

“I had gone for Ante-Natal Clinic in 2008. It was a sinking feeling. The safety of my to-be baby, was paramount.
In 2009, then the economy was in turmoil and there was a waiting list, however, I immediately was given an anti-HIV pill, nevirapine. That white single tablet became my lifeline to my unborn baby’s Ebenezer,” she says.

As a sero-discordant couple, Cathy has a supportive husband who has trudged beside her in this fight to keep the virus at undetectable levels.

“Pill burden is real, taking paracetamol for a headache is trying, what more of daily medication. One needs a treatment buddy; my husband is supportive and I have never missed a dose. We are discordant.

“My viral load is wonderfully suppressed to undetectable levels.  I am as fit as a fiddle, save for hypertension and diabetes mellitus which I manage though, through medication and diet,” she said.

Catherine Murombedzi
Discovered in the early 1980s is the HIV virus which saw many people die. Some hopefuls 
believed a cure would come and probably have lived to see it. The hopeless died.

In the 90s, treatment was unavailable but scientists did not relent or give in to the pressure to come up with treatment years later. For Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa, treatment for HIV came in the 2000s.

Treatment continued to evolve to foster adherence, while scientists devised ways to come up with the Cure alongside the revolutionary preventive methods such as the Dapivirine ring, the injectable Cabotegravir as well as the oral tablet, Truvada.

According to the Ministry of Health and Child Care June 2022 figures, over 1.3 million people are living with HIV. Of the 1.3 million, 1.2 million are on ART with 1.1 million on the 1st line, on the 2nd line were 49944 and the 3rd had 489 patients.

Meritorious efforts have been made over the years in this pursuit to unburden the lives of persons living with HIV. From HIV treatment, to HIV prevention and now currently under study the HIV cure.

To date there is sterilization method which refers to a strategy or strategies that would eliminate HIV from a person’s body, or permanently control the virus and render it unable to cause disease. There is also the functional cure where a virus is not completely eliminated by the body’s immune system but can be controlled without medication.

Gene Therapy (GT)has been used to cure many diseases including Sickle Cell anemia using a one-time treatment.
In a virtual media science café on HIV cure research organized by the Health Communicators Forum (HCF) and the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre (HIFC), said they were doing clinical trials of gene therapy in Uganda.

This was highlighted by a Ugandan researcher, Dr. Cissy Kityo, during a cross boarder Science Café on HIV Cure Research organized by Health Communicators Forum (HCF), facilitated by the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre (HIFC) funded by AVAC.

She further highlighted strides are being made, having two main clinical trials underway, the ex-vivo and in-vivo gene therapy trials.

“Ex-vivo gene therapy involves the genetic modification of cells outside of the body to produce therapeutic factors and their subsequent transplantation back into patients and various cell types can be genetically engineered while in-vivo gene therapy uses viruses or other methods to deliver genes directly inside the body. Both types of gene therapy are being studied to treat medical conditions like certain types of cancer as well as genetic and inherited disorders”, said Dr. Kityo.

Teaming up with the Fred Hutchinson Center in Seattle, Uganda’s Joint Clinical Research Centre is working on developing a gene therapy cure for HIV. This will be a first for Africa.

She said the licensed product which will be evaluated in Uganda is the Anti-HIV duoCAR-T cell therapy which modifies T cells such that they may be able to directly control HIV in the absence of therapy. This product is currently being evaluated in Phase 1 clinical trials at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Uganda is also currently developing genetic engineering policy and the regulatory approval pathway. One Ugandan scientist is currently being trained to manufacture gene therapy products at the Fred Hutchinson Center,” said Dr Kityo.

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