Science turning the tide in global battle against Aids epidemic

The Star

From dark days to a critical turning point in the Aids epidemic: the landscape has changed dramatically in the two decades since the world’s largest Aids conference last met in the US.

Back in 1990, the first good medicines were still a few years away. Before they arrived, caring for patients with HIV was like “putting Band-Aids on haemorrhages”, said the leading US Aids researcher, Dr Anthony Fauci.

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Wyclef Jean performs at the Keep the Promise on HIV/Aids Rally March on Washington, Sunday, July 22, 2012, in Washington.(Steve Ruark/AP Images for Aids Healthcare Foundation)Wyclef Jean, left, performs at the Keep the Promise March on Washington and rally, Sunday, July 22, 2012, in Washington. (Photo by Larry French/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

Fast-forward: today’s anti-Aids drugs work so well that they not only give people with HIV a near-normal life expectancy, they offer a double whammy – making those patients less likely to infect other people.

On Sunday, the International Aids Conference opened in the US capital with the goal of “turning the tide” on HIV. Even without a vaccine or a cure, the goal is to finally stem the spread of the virus, using that so-called “treatment as prevention” and some other powerful protections. The conference runs until Friday.

“There is no excuse, scientifically, to say we cannot do it,” said Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health.

But the challenge that more than 20 000 scientists, doctors, people living with HIV and policymakers are grappling with this week is how to get to what the Obama administration calls an Aids-free generation. Where’s the money? What works best in different countries and cultures?

And with HIV increasingly an epidemic of the poor and the marginalised, will countries find the will to invest in the most vulnerable?

“Rich countries think: ‘Who cares? We have the treatment, I hear now that HIV is a chronic condition,’” said a worried French Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of HIV Françoise Barré-Sinoussi. “I really think there is not the same political commitment as it was in the past.”

That political commitment must expand to fight laws that are driving some of the populations most at risk – gay and bisexual men, sex workers and injecting drug users – away from programmes that could help protect them from getting or spreading HIV, said Michel Sidibe, director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/Aids. “It’s outrageous that in 2012, when we have everything to beat this epidemic, that we still have to fight prejudice, stigma, exclusion,” he said.

More than 1 000 people – many of them living with HIV – marched through Washington, DC on Sunday to urge the public and policymakers to pay attention to a disease that, in the US, doesn’t get much publicity any more.

Organisers said the aim of the “Keep the Promise” march was to remind world leaders and policymakers that Aids remains a threat to global health.

Marchers used red umbrellas to create a human red ribbon in advance of the march. Some carried balloons in the shape of globes as they marched, and others carried signs reading “Test & Treat Now” and “Yes we can control Aids”.

The march was organised by the Los Angeles-based Aids Healthcare Foundation. “We’re everyday people. Anybody and everybody can catch this,” said Ann Dixon, who travelled from Arkansas to attend the march.

The Aids conference – remarkable for giving a forum not just to leading scientists but to everyday people who live with HIV – hasn’t returned to the US since 1990, in protest of the longtime ban on people with the virus entering the country. The Obama administration lifted the travel ban in 2010, finishing a process begun under the Bush administration. Not lifted was a ban on sex workers and injecting drug users, and protesters briefly interrupted the opening news conference to decry their absence from the meeting.

The conference comes at a time when scientists increasingly say they have powerful new tools to add to tried-and-true condoms.

Studies show that treatment as prevention, treating HIV right away rather than after someone is sick, lowers patients’ chances of spreading the virus through sex by a stunning 96 percent.

Already, Fauci said regions that are pushing to get more people tested and rushed into treatment are starting to see infections drop, from San Francisco and Washington to SA.

The US Food and Drug Administration just approved a daily Aids medicine, Truvada, for use by healthy people hoping to lower the risk of infection by a sexual partner.

Hard-hit poor countries are grappling with how to get that protection to their highest-risk populations.

Other goals include getting more HIV-infected pregnant women treated to protect their babies, and getting more men circumcised in developing countries to protect them from heterosexual infection.

But the hurdles are huge.

Since the first reports of Aids surfaced 31 years ago, a staggering 30 million people have died from the virus and 34.2 million now are living with HIV around the world.

There’s still no cure and no vaccine. For every person who starts treatment, two more are becoming infected.

In poor countries, a record 8 million people are getting HIV drugs, but the UN says it will take up to $24 billion (R200bn) a year – $7bn more than is being spent now – to reach those most in need.

The epidemic is worst in developing countries, especially in Africa. Progress has stalled even in the US, which has seen about 50 000 new infections every year for a decade. – Sapa-AP

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