Medical researchers say end to 30-year war against AIDS in sight

As the world celebrates World AIDS Day today Thursday December 1, there is encouraging news from medical researchers.

Thirty years, 30 million deaths and 60 million infections after HIV appeared, medical researchers now have the tools to halt the deadly epidemic.

“We have the weapons to win the war against AIDS,” says Dr Richard Marlink, Executive Director of AIDS Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health in the US.

“It is time to take what we have learned to turn the epidemic around and end AIDS.”

A statement from Harvard School of Public Health received in Accra on Wednesday said an estimated 34 million people were currently living with HIV and about 6.6 million people living with HIV who were eligible for treatment now had access.

It said “positive new findings” had come from new clinical research done in multiple countries showing that treatment could be up to 96 per cent effective in preventing HIV transmission between couples.

AIDS experts from around the world will address these issues at the World AIDS Day symposium, “AIDS@30” on December 1-2, organized by the Harvard School of Public Health.

It said global leaders attending the symposium would include Deborah Birx, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Max Essex, Harvard School of Public Health, Paul Farmer, Partners in Health, Harvard Medical School Anthony Fauci, National Institutes of Health Robert Gallo, University of Maryland and Elly Katabira, International AIDS Society.

Others would be Michel Kazatchkine, The Global Fund, Chip Lyons, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, Festus Mogae, former President of Botswana, Angela Mushavi, Ministry of Health, Zimbabwe, Nancy Padian, Office of the US Global AIDS Coordinator, Phill Wilson, Black AIDS Institute and Bruce Walker, Harvard-MIT Ragon Institute.

“Now that the end of AIDS may be possible, it’s time to pause and reflect, then regroup and redouble our efforts,” says Dr Julio Frenk, Dean of Harvard School of Public Health. “We have invested so much we can’t afford to slow down now.”

The statement said at issue were the resources needed and the best ways to bring these weapons to all parts of the globe, especially to the high-risk groups most vulnerable to infection with HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that causes AIDS.

It said after years of frustration and a mounting death toll, “the new hope for ending the AIDS epidemic stems from an explosion of scientific knowledge in the past few years.

This knowledge has led to new and better prevention interventions, such as treating pregnant women and nursing mothers infected with the virus or the nursing baby, stops mother-to-child transmission of the virus, protecting infants and young children from HIV and treating HIV infection itself with antiretroviral drugs dramatically reduces by 96 per cent the likelihood that the infected person will pass on the virus to a sexual partner.

It has also led to knowledge that in men, circumcision reduces the risk of becoming infected with HIV and antiretroviral drugs used by people in high-risk groups before exposure can also prevent HIV infection.

It said, however, that at the moment, several obstacles stood in the way of applying this knowledge to halt the epidemic.

The first, and most obvious, is the global economic slowdown, which threatens the needed boost in funding to follow through on these prevention interventions.

It said according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the United Nations agency charged with leading the global effort against AIDS, the world spent $15 billion on AIDS in 2010, but far more was needed to reach all people who were eligible for treatment and to fully implement necessary HIV prevention efforts.

UN Member States set bold targets in the 2011 UN Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS, which include halving new HIV infections, providing treatment to 15 million people and scaling up resources for AIDS to between $22-24 billion annually by 2015.

UNAIDS has also developed a new investment framework to help countries reach their goals, which would avert at least 12.2 million new HIV infections and 7.4 million AIDS-related deaths between 2011 and 2020.

“Fighting AIDS is a smart investment, even in this difficult economic environment,” according to UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe. “We have to look beyond the short-term and recognize the long-term benefits.”

Another key to halting the epidemic is leadership, both at the national and international levels. Early in the epidemic, a strong activist movement prodded both scientists and policy makers. New combination drug treatments were developed and shown to be very effective.

“Once drugs transformed AIDS from a death sentence into a chronic disease, unfortunately the urgency related to AIDS seemed to decrease dramatically,” says Dr. Marlink.

A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that, in 2009, only six per cent of those questioned considered AIDS the most urgent public health problem. A similar poll in 1995 found 44 per cent considered AIDS the most urgent public health problem.

“Such findings show the public thinks the crisis is over, even though an estimated 50,000 new HIV infections occur every year in the US,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The difference may be that AIDS today is seen as a chronic disease and the current generation has not lived with the wasting and cancers that characterized the early years of AIDS.”

The statement said in Africa, which had two-thirds of people living with HIV, strong leadership had made a difference.

“Botswana has had a robust national programme for 10 years. In South Africa, where there are more people living with HIV than in any other country in the world, new leadership has given rise to a much more expanded and effective AIDS treatment and care programme.

“Already 6.6 million people in low and middle-income countries, many in Africa, are receiving treatment and in 33 countries the rate of new infections has fallen, according to UNAIDS.

It said in May, results from an international study, known as HPTN 052, showed that people infected with HIV were 96 per cent less likely to transmit the virus to their sexual partner if they were taking antiretroviral medication when their immune systems were relatively healthy.

“New HIV infections among children have already been virtually stopped in high-income countries, with the number of new infections among children falling dramatically due to the effective use and availability of antiretroviral drugs. Comparable results can be achieved in low- and middle-income countries.

Transmission of HIV infection from mother to child can be reduced to less than 5 percent if pregnant women living with HIV have access to health programs involving antiretroviral drugs.”

The statement noted that about half of all funding for the AIDS response came from domestic sources and the other half from international donors, primarily through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, established 10 years ago.

“However, the Global Fund is cutting new grants for countries battling AIDS until 2014. The fate of PEPFAR, the huge international US AIDS programme, remains in question as the US Congress contemplates ways to address the deficit,” it said.

The symposium will therefore chart a path toward the end of AIDS.

Source: GNA

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