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More Information to be Shared on AIDS Vaccine

Mehru Jaffer

VIENNA, Jul 18 2010 (IPS) - Scientists participating in the 18th International AIDS conference that opens in Vienna Sunday promise to share more information on vaccine research.

Dr. Alan Bernstein, Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise executive director, told journalists on the eve of the conference that the search for safe and effective HIV vaccines is one of the greatest challenges for modern science.

“However, this is also a pivotal moment in HIV vaccine research,” Bernstein said at a four-day global media training programme on HIV/AIDS held by the Washington-based National Press Foundation in collaboration with the week- long AIDS 2010 Conference that ends Jul. 23.

A scientific strategic plan by the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, a collaborative effort of more than 400 researchers worldwide, will be released in September this year.

Experts are optimistic that breakthroughs in HIV vaccine research are possible if they work together. Linda Gail Bekker, deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine in South Africa, said it has become essential to pool the resources of experts working in different parts of the world.

At the moment antiretroviral drugs slow down replication of the HIV virus and can greatly enhance quality of life, but they do not eliminate HIV infection. In the absence of the magic cure that the world has been waiting for for the past 25 years, prevention and early treatment of HIV is the focus.

An estimated 5.2 million were receiving life saving HIV treatment at the end of 2009. This is just one-third of the number in need. For each person who receives treatment, 2.5 more on average are infected.

Multiple approaches to stopping HIV include use of condoms, circumcision, widespread promotion of monogamy, and safer sex. All these can slow this epidemic but not end it. Historically, vaccines have been the best tool to limit or stop the spread of a virus. Small pox and polio have been almost eliminated with use of vaccines.

HIV is the most elusive virus ever targeted for a vaccine, and requires substantial support for costly research.

Scientists call for early treatment before patients develop weakened immunity, leading to an attack on the body by infections such as tuberculosis (TB), the number one killer of people with HIV. Deaths from TB can be reduced by as much as 90 percent if people with both HIV and TB start treatment early enough.

The strength of a person’s immune system is measured by CD4 cells. A healthy person has a CD4 count of 1,000 to 1,500 cells. Previously the recommendation for starting HIV treatment was after a person’s CD4 count dropped below 200 cells, but starting HIV treatment is now recommended at 350 cells or below.

Apart from saving lives, early treatment brings prevention benefits. It reduces the level of virus in the body, and HIV positive people are less likely to pass the virus to their partners.

More than 2.7 million people worldwide are newly infected with HIV every year, and every person infected with HIV requires expensive and often complex antiretroviral treatment for life.

The budget needed for HIV treatment in 2010 will be about 9 billion dollars, according to UNAIDS. In the face of declining resources the conference is expected to see a scramble for funds by scientists, advocates and governments.

The conference will review the state of the pandemic, and examine also the complex interaction between human rights and the spread of the epidemic among people most at risk, like women and children.

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