'Womandla!' A Zimbabwean physician empowers women against HIV

Dr. Nyaradzo Mavis Mgodi
Dr. Nyaradzo Mavis Mgodi conducts HIV prevention clinical trials in Harare, Zimbabwe, including the AMP study for the Fred Hutch-based HIV Vaccine Trials Network. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Physician-scientist Dr. Nyaradzo Mavis Mgodi is co-chairperson of the AMP (antibody-mediated prevention) HIV Prevention Study. A joint effort of the Fred Hutch-based HIV Vaccine Trials Network and the North Carolina-based HIV Prevention Trials Network, the study is investigating whether an intravenous infusion of broadly neutralizing antibodies protects women in sub-Saharan Africa against HIV. If it does, the finding will have particular significance for an epidemic that hits women on that continent especially hard and for which they have few prevention options.

As soon as I finished my medical school training, I began working in HIV. I worked at the two major referral hospitals in Harare, Zimbabwe, starting in 1996. 

I have seen a lot of AIDS — not just treating patients in the hospitals, but family, friends, colleagues. The very first time I realized we were losing family members to HIV, it was the mid-1990s, before treatment was available. It was harrowing, with so many people dying unnecessarily. I’ve lost so many family members. Too many.

Each and every Zimbabwean has been infected or affected by AIDS. It has been traumatic. But we are resilient. People in general are resilient.

Now we’ve got treatment. But we need to close the cycle. We don’t need any more infections.

Since 2007 I have been working in the clinical trials unit run by the University of Zimbabwe-University of California San Francisco. Now we are embarking on the AMP HIV Prevention Study. This is the first trial to assess if broadly neutralizing antibodies can be used to prevent HIV infection in African women.

Barely two weeks ago, I was in central East Africa, presenting a workshop. A couple of the new [researchers] came to me afterwards and asked, "Why African women?"

Women bear a disproportionate burden of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Over 5,000 new HIV infections occur every week among young women in 14 African countries, especially South Africa, Uganda, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia.

“Why do you care?” young investigators ask me. I care because I want HIV to end for women in Africa. Sometimes we forget it’s not just about statistics. These are people like you and me. All over southern Africa, women ... suffer silently. There are millions of women who need empowerment.

I’ve coined a new word: “Womandla.” Amandla means power [in Zulu and Xhosa]. So, women power.

Womandla! Empower women against HIV.

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