Charles Chasakara is the CTU Community Engagement Coordinator at the University of Zimbabwe-University of California San Francisco Clinical Trials Unit in Harare, Zimbabwe. Charles currently works on HPTN 076, HVTN 703/HPTN 081 and HPTN 082.
1. How did you first become involved with the HPTN?
At the time the Parirenyatwa Clinic Research Site (CRS) in Harare, Zimbabwe was recruiting participants for the HPTN 052 study (2009), I was appointed the Clinical Trials Unit (CTU) Community Engagement Coordinator. In this role I started working closely with the HPTN community engagement team and the local CTU (Harare CAB, Chitungwiza CAB and Epworth CAB) CABs, according to our catchment areas. In 2011, we then embarked on restructuring and streamlining the CABs to establish research network based CABs to foster network focused specialization for effective community involvement, without losing the geographical and direct stakeholder representation found in the previous structures. This gave birth to HPTN CAB whose activities I directly coordinate.
2. What have been the best/worst things to happen since you starting working with the HPTN?
When I started working with HPTN 052 our country was going through a very rough period and participant recruitment was extremely slow. We defied the odds by maintaining uninterrupted research related activities and meeting participant enrolment targets during very volatile times that were characterized by an economic meltdown, internal destabilizations caused by distraction of residential and business structures deemed illegal or substandard and political turmoil caused by the violent pre and post presidential elections. Together with the CAB we worked rigorously to retain participants who were displaced and highly mobile and the CAB also guaranteed the safety of CRS staff especially those that visited the community when there were political skirmishes. The best thing was the CRS excelled during very trying times to contribute to results that today have changed the HIV prevention landscape.
3. What do you find most challenging about the work you do in support of the HPTN?
Facing the realities of push factors in the community that drive people to high HIV risk behaviours conscious of the fact my work does not mitigate these immediate challenges takes a big toll on me. I am always pushing for the need to have a variety of effective HIV prevention tools, the need for behaviour change, the need to improve our research and HIV prevention literacy, and the need to participate in clinical trials heedless of their daily challenges such as poverty, unemployment, financially out of reach health services and a plethora of social ills. This is not only challenging when doing HPTN work but whenever you do community engagement people look up to you to provide solutions to problems that are not even related to HIV research and if their immediate needs are not heard then the whole process is derailed.
4. What do you wish other people knew about your work?
I enjoy working with people to find solutions that shall benefit generations to come. The feeling I get when I manage to educate people and encourage them to participate in a clinical trial is tremendous and when we together answer a research question and the research result influence health policy again the joy is inexpressible. It is very difficult to convince especially someone who is in very good health to volunteer to participate in a clinical trial and to take investigational medicine. People these days are very individualistic and they ask you “What is in it for me?’ making it very difficult to encourage altruism, but this is my job and that is why it is so fulfilling.
5. What do you think will change about HIV prevention over the next five years?
Poor or non-adherence to study products has inspired scientists to develop long acting agents like the injectable (e.g., HPTN 076), clinician administered interventions, combination drugs (e.g., contraceptive and HIV prevention method) and to also invest in behavioural studies to understand factors affecting adherence to study products. I think this will greatly improve adherence and the prevention tool box will be enriched by a variety of successful tools over the next five years. I hope governments and funders will be more committed and swift in licencing and rolling out evidence based HIV intervention tools. PrEP has been proven to prevent HIV infection but governments have been very reluctant to licence it in many countries around the globe when we are in dire need of
6. What might someone be surprised to know about you?
Paying no attention to the bulging tummy of mine; I was very athletic in my school days and I used to pay soccer for the school’s senior team as a goal keeper, from the age of 16. We made the national finals four years in a row and in all the years I was the first choice goalkeeper but never the captain of the team because I was impish and could not at the time command any respect. I however was hired to play for a second division league Provincial National Army team whilst I was still a secondary school student.
7. What do you like to do when not working?
I spend most of my leisure time with my family at home, visiting with family and friends, at church, losing our wings at musical family shows or attending premier league soccer matches. I sometimes play non-league social soccer just to keep fit. My wife and I also like music and we track certain local musicians’ shows almost on every weekend.