Sitting in 3A, I’m pinching myself for what I’m about to experience. More than the animals and the safari and the wine lands and coastal adventures, I’m about to witness the innovation of science at its finest in Johannesburg through one of my favorite companies.
I learned about this trip a couple of months ago while in New York City when Johnson & Johnson joined 20 influencers together to discuss ways to change human health. I knew they were far more than just good baby powder. I knew they’ve always championed the next generation and female empowerment. What I didn’t know was that they’re on the heels of eradicating HIV with the FIRST EVER preventative vaccine study in sub-Saharan Africa. This is straight science at its best. Extremely brilliant, over-my-head scientists have been trying to do this for over 25 years but to no avail. It wasn’t until one talented man tried his hand at it… (and I sacrificed the good lighting because he deserves at least that much!)
Dr. Paul Stoffels has spent much of his career fighting AIDS. As a medical student training in the Congo in the 80s, he saw first-hand when the epidemic hit. Now as Chief Scientific Officer at Johnson & Johnson, he may be on the path to curing HIV, a career goal from the beginning. Having undergone many personal experiences with HIV, it really hit home when one of his best friends contracted the disease years ago.
One of my best friends, a doctor was infected with HIV when I was in Africa back in ’87. He was my best friend and I worked my whole life to try to save him and keep him alive and it worked, he’s still alive today,” said Dr. Stoffels speaking about the personal impact of HIV research. “He was a research object but also the happy recipient of new medicines. He had his own kids then, 6 and 7 years old, when we were in Africa. Today, he has grandkids. We would have never, ever believed that he would even reach 1990.
The global community made previously unimaginable progress in the 30 years since the emergence of the disease. The most exciting development in recent months is a large-scale study has officially been launched for an entire year now and will evaluate whether the vaccine is safe and able to reduce the HIV infection compared to a placebo group in 2,600 sexually active HIV infected women. The study, known as “Imbokodo,” a Zulu word for “rock,” is part of a well-known proverb in South Africa referring to the strength of a woman and her importance in the community. (YES!)
1.8 million people around the world contracted HIV in 2017 (while 37 million are already affected worldwide). Plus, every day over 1,100 girls and young women are newly infected – 70% being from the poorest countries in the sub-Sahara region. At that rate, it’s imperative to find ways to prevent – or even better, CURE – the virus. While the outcome of HIV treatment is good, it still requires patients taking medication lifelong, every day, without missing one pill. Preventing HIV altogether would be far better. It’s all a massive undertaking, but if we don’t try…if we don’t utilize all minds, all hearts and all resources, we’ll never get there.
Initiated in November 2017, the study has officially been ongoing for exactly 1 year now. Paul, alongside Johnson & Johnson partners, is trying to ensure that every baby is born HIV-free, adolescents and adults stay HIV-free, and people living with HIV have access to the medicines they need. To learn about this innovation in NYC from Paul himself was fascinating, but to actually see the prevention with my own eyes in South Africa on location inside various villages will be life changing. Together we can change the trajectory of health and with a blend of heart, science and technology, we can eradicate anything holding us down. November is all about giving thanks, and today I’m thankful for Johnson & Johnson as well as their ability, desire and commitment to aiding in human health for all of humanity. I’m beyond grateful and excited to be a part of it. Update on our trip coming soon!