January 14, 2014

The human face of global health R&D: Cynthia Gama and USAID

Senior Program Assistant

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is the nation’s lead foreign assistance agency. Throughout its 50-year history, USAID has worked with other government agencies, the private sector, and nongovernmental organizations to support the development and introduction of affordable health products appropriate for addressing the diseases and health issues in developing countries.

The GHTC has launched a new blog series to highlight the impact of USAID’s commitment to global health research and development (R&D). The series will showcase stories from individuals who have benefited from the agency’s support and investment in R&D—as well as people whose lives would vastly improve if USAID were to expand its support for health R&D into new areas.

Our fourth and final post in the series is by Dr. Cynthia Gama, a principal investigator with MatCH and works with the International Partnership for Microbicides (IPM) in South Africa. Based on her experiences, Cynthia writes about the need for USAID to support R&D for microbicides to protect women from HIV.

Q: As a microbicide researcher working in South Africa, you witness every day the impact of HIV on women. Can you tell us about the effect of HIV on women in your community?

A: It is very difficult to not see the face of HIV and AIDS every single day when working in communities such as ours. The KwaZulu Natal province in South Africa has a high incidence of HIV and while we all know that women bear the brunt of the epidemic, the resulting impact can been seen not only in the women but also in the young children who have lost their parents; the old grandmothers who care for orphans; the daughters who often drop out of school to help them; and the impact that HIV has had on all aspects of people’s lives.

What gives me hope is knowing that we are working toward a product—a microbicide for women— that may help to reverse this trend in our community and give women and their families a better future.

Dr. Cynthia Gama of MatCH. Photo: IPM
Dr. Cynthia Gama of MatCH. Photo: IPM

Q: Why are microbicides and other women-controlled prevention methods so important in the fight against HIV? Are currently available prevention methods, like male condoms, realistic options for women in your community and other parts of the world?

A: We know that condoms work—both male and female condoms—and we know that South Africa has one of the largest and best-established public-sector male and female condom programs worldwide. Women in our community receive HIV prevention and contraception advice from various sources. While women may have access to these prevention products, the challenge is that women may not always have the ability to negotiate their use with their partners. This could explain the disproportionately high numbers of our women being infected with HIV. As a researcher, I know that women desire more options to protect themselves, hence my commitment to making sure that collectively we can deliver more options to our communities.

Our research center and community is involved in The Ring Study, which is evaluating a unique product, a long-acting microbicide ring. Women who participate are shown how to insert the ring themselves, which is designed to stay in place for a month at a time and release an antiretroviral drug to prevent HIV.

Q: How has USAID support helped advance your research and the microbicide field as a whole?

A: The support that our study sponsor, IPM, receives from donors such as USAID ensures that new products for women are developed, and that we can do the much needed work and research that would one day turn the hope of a microbicide product into reality. Without funding, none of what has been achieved thus far could have been possible.

Q: What other benefits of clinical research for microbicide development—such as capacity building and infrastructure development—has USAID support had in your community?

A: HIV prevention research has most certainly strengthened the scientific and medical research sector overall. Expertise in conducting large clinical trials is now available and well-developed, and has offered more employment opportunities. USAID support has helped to bring communities closer to science, and helped communities appreciate the need for clinical research and understand its benefits.

Q: When a safe and effective microbicide becomes available, what impact are you hoping to see for women in your community and around the world? What role will USAID have played in this effort?

A: On that day of jubilation we would know that our sisters, daughters, and granddaughters have much to look forward to. I hope that once a product shows efficacy, that our policy makers will ensure that it is made available as soon as possible. Organizations such as USAID and others together are making it possible for this dream to become reality.