Irish priest first in South Africa in human HIV vaccine trials

John Henry Boudreaux | November 5, 2003

JOHANESBURG — A soft-spoken, bespectacled Irish priest on Tuesday became the first person in South Africa to participate in human trials of an experimental HIV vaccine.

Cameras flashed and film rolled as Kieran Creagh rolled up his sleeve to show off the injection site and shared a glass of champagne with medical staff at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto.

Slightly embarrassed by the attention, he said: "The people living with HIV are the real heroes." Creagh, 41, from Belfast, Ireland, is one of 24 volunteers participating in the first human trials in South Africa, a country where more than one in 10 people is infected with the AIDS-causing virus.

The drug, which is also being tested in the United States, is one of about two dozen potential vaccines being tested by some 12,000 human volunteers in experiments around the world.

Like many volunteers, Creagh knows people with HIV and was moved by their suffering to want to do something about the pandemic.

"I was a bit apprehensive the last few days ... but reality set in," he said. "This is a good thing to be a part of, so bring it on." Some 4.7 million South Africans, roughly 11 percent of the population, are infected with HIV. An estimated 600 to 1,000 South Africans die every day from AIDS-related complications.

Creagh said the church's efforts against HIV, including education and abstinence drives, have fallen short, and he now believes that only medical research can provide a solution.

"I don't want the young people to suffer any more," he said.

The drug he is helping to test, developed by U.S. and South African scientists, contains parts of a weakened strain of Venezuelan equine encephalitis and a harmless gene from the strain of HIV most prevalent in South Africa.

By entering human cells, scientists hope it will stimulate the production of antibodies that will fight off AIDS infections, and also train specialized cells - dubbed killer T-cells - to identify and eliminate cells infected with the virus.

The drug has already been extensively tested on animals. The first human trials are aimed at establishing the safety of the drug and are expected to last two years.

Creagh was asked to keep a daily record of his temperature, any soreness and a general description of the injection site for further research. He does not know if he received the drug or a placebo. –Sapa

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