Layered vulnerability and researchers’ responsibilities: learning from research involving Kenyan adolescents living with perinatal HIV infection

Mary Kimani, Sassy Molyneux, Anderson Charo, Scholastica M. Zakayo, Gladys Sanga, Rita Njeru, Alun Davies, Maureen Kelley, Amina Abubakar, Vicki Marsh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Carefully planned research is critical to developing policies and interventions that counter physical, psychological and social challenges faced by young people living with HIV/AIDS, without increasing burdens. Such studies, however, must navigate a ‘vulnerability paradox’, since including potentially vulnerable groups also risks unintentionally worsening their situation. Through embedded social science research, linked to a cohort study involving Adolescents Living with HIV/AIDS (ALH) in Kenya, we develop an account of researchers’ responsibilities towards young people, incorporating concepts of vulnerability, resilience, and agency as ‘interacting layers’. Methods: Using a qualitative, iterative approach across three linked data collection phases including interviews, group discussions, observations and a participatory workshop, we explored stakeholders’ perspectives on vulnerability and resilience of young people living with HIV/AIDS, in relation to home and community, school, health care and health research participation. A total of 62 policy, provider, research, and community-based stakeholders were involved, including 27 ALH participating in a longitudinal cohort study. Data analysis drew on a Framework Analysis approach; ethical analysis adapts Luna’s layered account of vulnerability. Results: ALH experienced forms of vulnerability and resilience in their daily lives in which socioeconomic context, institutional policies, organisational systems and interpersonal relations were key, interrelated influences. Anticipated and experienced forms of stigma and discrimination in schools, health clinics and communities were linked to actions undermining ART adherence, worsening physical and mental health, and poor educational outcomes, indicating cascading forms of vulnerability, resulting in worsened vulnerabilities. Positive inputs within and across sectors could build resilience, improve outcomes, and support positive research experiences. Conclusions: The most serious forms of vulnerability faced by ALH in the cohort study were related to structural, inter-sectoral influences, unrelated to study participation and underscored by constraints to their agency. Vulnerabilities, including cascading forms, were potentially responsive to policy-based and interpersonal actions. Stakeholder engagement supported cohort design and implementation, building privacy, stakeholder understanding, interpersonal relations and ancillary care policies. Structural forms of vulnerability underscore researchers’ responsibilities to work within multi-sectoral partnerships to plan and implement studies involving ALH, share findings in a timely way and contribute to policies addressing known causes of vulnerabilities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number21
Pages (from-to)21
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 20 2024


  • Adolescent health
  • Africa
  • Ancillary care
  • Empirical ethics research
  • Global health research
  • Research ethics
  • Researchers’ responsibilities
  • Resilience
  • Vulnerability
  • HIV Infections/psychology
  • Humans
  • Kenya
  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome
  • Adolescent
  • Social Stigma
  • Qualitative Research
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Cohort Studies

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Issues, ethics and legal aspects
  • Health(social science)
  • Health Policy


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