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The Unlikeliest of Places

If you were to ask me where I think lies humanity's greatest hope for conquering AIDS, it probably wouldn't occur to me to guess the home of a desperately poor Kenyan prostitute: a woman who turns dozens of tricks each week (earning a quarter each time) as her only means of feeding her children. Nope, I wouldn't guess there.

But maybe I'd be wrong:

[I]n a way, Munyiva is a fortunate woman -- extraordinarily fortunate to be free of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Since the disease emerged in Nairobi in the early 1980s, the sexually transmitted virus has infected 90% of the city's lower-class prostitutes; but somehow Munyiva, 42, has avoided the scourge during her 13 years in that grim line of work. "Perhaps God knows that if he takes me away, my children would suffer," she says.

Munyiva is one of 25 prostitutes in Nairobi who are currently being studied to see if the source of their apparent immunity to HIV can be identified.

A small number of people in other high-risk groups, including some homosexuals and spouses of infected hemophiliacs, have shown resistance to infection. But the Nairobi prostitutes, so frequently exposed to the virus for so many years, provide the strongest evidence yet that people can have a natural immunity to AIDS. If the cause of that protection can be identified, it could spur efforts to develop a vaccine.

I certainly hope that, even if this research provides no immediately fruitful results, these 25 women are remunerated for their participation in such a way that helps to improve their condition. But it's hard to think about them without remembering all the other desperately poor women who face similar circumstances -- and who aren't immune to HIV.

Makes me wish there was something I could do about it. But then, there's plenty we can all do.


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