Tackling South Africa’s HIV/Aids Epidemic With Science and Education

South Africa has the largest HIV epidemic in the world. Every week, almost 4,500 South Africans are newly infected with the disease. Twenty-five percent of these new infections are seen in adolescent girls and young women age 15-24 – an extremely vulnerable population. 

HIV-prevalence rates for these young women are dramatic—and horrifying— rising from less than 1 % at age 15% to 66% at age 23. And powerful social factors contribute to these high infection rates, including economic dependency on men, gender inequality, and low self-esteem. 

That’s where the Females Rising through Education Support and Health (FRESH) comes in. FRESH, a longitudinal study, partially funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, approaches HIV/AIDs with a combination of scientific research and education, giving researchers an opportunity to collect samples from participants immediately after being infected with HIV while providing them with immediate treatment during acute infection and, just as importantly, with an educational program designed to build a sense of female empowerment in a safe environment and teach skills that will help alleviate poverty. 

Located in the Umlazi Township, FRESH is part of a larger Ragon project studying the development of broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNAbs) in HIV-1 infection. FRESH Investigators recruit and collect blood samples from 300 women, who do not have HIV at the time of enrollment, ranging in age from 18-23. At the same time, FRESH staff members provide intensive empowerment, life skills, and job readiness curriculum (‘FRESH-start’) that coincides with the blood sample collection. Participants are also given access to free prevnetiation treatment for HIV and, should they contract the disease, free treatment to suppress the virus. The FRESH-start curriculum addresses the profound and underlying poverty of participants that puts the girls and young women at risk of HIV, helping to support a community ravaged by the HIV epidemic.

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