Bobby Ramakant – CNS
(CNS): Approximately 7500 people newly infected with HIV every day. In this scenario, the development of an AIDS vaccine is one of the greatest challenges currently in medical research and no viral disease has ever been controlled without a vaccine. "On occasion of HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, 18th May, my good wishes are for the researchers and scientists who are working hard for developing HIV vaccine but unfortunately we haven't got it till now" says Naresh Yadav, founder of UP Network of People living with HIV (UPNP+) and Chairperson of International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC) India.
Not just Naresh, but many others share the concern for early access to effective HIV vaccine. For more than a decade, researchers and advocates have marked HIV Vaccine Awareness Day with varying degrees of hope, cynicism and despair. "This year, in large part because of the results of the Thai Prime-Boost vaccine study, there is greater cause for hope than ever before and a renewed sense of urgency to transform this hope into a reality" said Jittima Jantanamalaka, who leads CNS AIDS Care Initiative in northern Thailand.
In September 2009, the world's largest AIDS vaccine trial to date showed the first evidence that an experimental AIDS vaccine could lower the risk of HIV infection. The results were complex; the observed benefit from the vaccine was modest; and the field is still years away from a highly protective vaccine.
"The caveats to the Thai Prime-Boost study results are important and true. But letting them become the entire story does a severe, even dangerous, disservice to the field, the trial and especially the 16,000 people who participated in the trial," said Mitchell Warren, Executive Director of AVAC: Global Advocacy for HIV Prevention.
"Despite the many perspectives on and interpretations of the trial – and its results – the Thai AIDS vaccine trial provides evidence for the first time that it is possible to reduce the risk of HIV infection with a vaccine. AVAC and others have worked to explain the uncertainty of the results and the need for follow-up research. We will continue to do this because the science is complicated, and the future is unknown."
But for HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, AVAC's loud and clear message is that the Thai Prime-Boost trial changed the game for AIDS vaccines. A PREVENTIVE AIDS VACCINE IS POSSIBLE. The results were surprising to many and prompted some skepticism. But it is potentially disastrous if all that advocates, potential donors and future HIV vaccine trial volunteers and researchers think about the trial is that it gave a murky result, that it failed or that it left us no closer to an AIDS vaccine than we had been before.
"In fact, there's renewed energy in the AIDS vaccine field today, even as we grapple with what these results mean and where we go from here," said Warren. "The next steps for the field must involve more not less: more trials, more community volunteerism, more political will and sustained funding. One way to help ensure this is to celebrate what's happened to date, even as we prepare for everything that still needs to be done."
AVAC proposes three key steps for the AIDS vaccine field.
1) Work aggressively to see what information can be gleaned from further analysis of the biological samples from more than 16,000 Thai men and women who participated in the trial and hope that we might learn why this vaccine combination worked at all.
2) Build on this result, testing similar vaccines and combinations in different populations.
3) Ensure that there is an increasingly diverse scientific portfolio to develop and test entirely different approaches.
There is no question that more resources are needed for existing AIDS treatment and prevention programs.
People living with HIV deserve treatment and care, not waiting lists and death. But people who are at risk of HIV infection also deserve new ways to protect themselves.
Fully funding HIV treatment and prevention programs and HIV research would require only a fraction of the trillions of dollars governments have spent on bailing out big companies, and it would be a wise investment for the long-term economic stability of families, communities and nations.
"It's easy to call for all of these things, but it is much, much harder to achieve them," said Warren. "We hope that the next chapter of AIDS vaccine research shows the field capable of greater efficiency and prioritization: triaging current projects, jettisoning some, cutting costs within others, scaling up still others, and developing a clear strategy for collaborative action on key goals. We need a fully funded comprehensive approach to AIDS prevention and treatment, which includes finding new HIV prevention options, such as AIDS vaccines and antiretroviral-based HIV prevention, including pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and microbicide gels that could be used by women and men to protect themselves from HIV infection."
Agrees Paramita Kundu, who has worked in the field of HIV prevention technologies since past few years. "Access to safe and effective HIV prevention technologies for women like vaccines and microbicides is an integral part of a gendered response to HIV. To maximize the impact of a technology it is as critical to place it within a comprehensive programme that encompasses other HIV prevention strategies like behaviour change and reproductive health services and addresses structural determinants like gender inequality" said Paramita Kundu. (CNS)
Bobby Ramakant – CNS
(The author is a Policy Adviser to Citizen News Service (CNS), a World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General's WNTD Awardee (2008), writes extensively on health and development. Website: www.citizen-news.org, email: [email protected] )
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