Important Advancement in AIDS Prevention
Jul 29, 2010

By Christine Vara
I recall when AIDS was first making headlines 25 years ago.  There were so many misconceptions about the disease itself and how it was being spread that people were really frightened.  Nowadays, most people are educated about the ways in which the disease is transmitted and this has empowered people to take the steps necessary to protect themselves.  Education on AIDS prevention has therefore spared many people from pain, suffering and death.  
Unfortunately, the number of AIDS infected people in this world is still a staggering statistic and the global impact is frightening.  More than 2.7 million people worldwide are newly infected with H.I.V. every year.  According to an NY Times article written by Seth Berkley, president and CEO of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, and Alan Bernstein, executive director of the Global H.I.V. Vaccine Enterprise, the United Nations data shows that 5 million people are now receiving H.I.V. drugs in developing countries.  However, they represent just one-third of the number in need. For each person who receives treatment, 2.5 more are infected. While we in the US may not witness this devastating disease on a daily basis, 40% of the adult population in Swaziland, South Africa are already infected, resulting in an growing number of orphans among children.
So when will there be a vaccine that could effectively target this pandemic?  While many researchers have spent countless hours working on this, Mr. Berkley and Mr. Bernstein suggest that the search for an H.I.V. vaccine will only be accomplished through a global effort with more financial support.  Currently, there are only a handful of funders led by the U.S. government who pay for the bulk of H.I.V. vaccine research.  What is needed, they explain, is help from the private sector, whose expertise and resources could make the vaccine a reality, as well as a commitment by other nations to address this disease. 

USAID supports numerous HIV/AIDS projects in Uganda, including testing and counseling clinics.

While vaccine progress has been agonizingly slow, a recent trial on a preventative gel has proven that hope remains.  The vaginal gel, called a microbicide, consists of 1% tenofovir, which is an antiviral drug.  In the trial, African women inserted the gel before and after sexual relations from a plastic applicator to protect without their partner ever needing to be aware of the use of the gel.  Considering the cultural issues surrounding preventative measure in many areas of the world, this was a notable benefit of this type of AIDS prevention.    
The positive test results indicated that the gel provided women with at least a 39% chance of avoiding infection, while those using the gel faithfully experienced a 54% protection rate.  What’s even better is that there was an unexpected bonus that resulted from this gel as well.  Since tenofovir is an antiviral drug, it not only protected women from AIDS, but also offered a greater protection against genital herpes, which is also a viral infection. 
Interestingly, the NY Times published an article earlier this week Advance on AIDS Raises Questions as Well as Joy that pondered the many questions this research has raised.  For instance, is it safe enough to use daily?  Can it be used by pregnant women?  Could it be effectively used by men?  If more tenofovir went into the gel, would it be more effective?  The article goes on to discuss these and many other questions that could be explored in future trials.
The point here is that science is just that – scientific.  It can’t be rushed.  Research requires time and money and both are needed to determine results and evaluate the safety and effectiveness of various treatments.  One discovery often leads to more hope, and more questions.  Of course, in the interest of public health, we must accept the slow progress for the hope of lasting results. 
What are your thoughts on the fight against AIDS?  Are you encouraged by the scientific developments?  Let us know you thoughts by commenting below.

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