On May 18 2014, the world will commemorate World AIDS Vaccine Day. This is a day for us to take stock of our efforts and progress made towards developing a vaccine that will prevent HIV infection. While scientists, researchers and activists alike intensify efforts to come up with lasting solutions to the AIDS pandemic, investing in a vaccine cannot be overemphasized. More than 30 years after the first HIV diagnosis, there is no scientifically proven cure yet, and the existing treatment to manage the virus still remains costly and inaccessible to some communities. While some prevention methods exist like condoms, not everyone can afford, have access to them or correctly use them.
Africa carries the biggest burden of the epidemic with Sub-Saharan Africa being most severely affected, where nearly 1 in every 20 adults is living with HIV. The region also accounts for 71% of the people living with HIV worldwide. In 2011 there were an estimated 23.5 million people living with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa while about 1.2 million died due to AIDS related illness that same year. It is estimated that 15.1 million children under 18 have lost either one or both parents due to AIDS and that this will rise to 25 million by 2015. The burden of the pandemic is far reaching and impacts all spheres of a country’s development including its economy thereby affecting the continent’s ability to foster economic growth.
UNAIDS is leading the global HIV response with a goal of zero new infections, zero stigma and zero AIDS related deaths. One of the ways to make this goal a reality is to invest in a comprehensive response that ensures sustainable innovations in prevention, care, treatment and support. While this entails improving access to existing proven means of preventing HIV transmission, it also means investing in new and innovative prevention technologies that respond to the needs of different constituencies.
Before the successful trial results of medical male circumcision in 2006, there had been no significant new biomedical HIV prevention strategy in more than a decade. That was after the female condom was approved for sale in the US in 1993 by The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and in 1994, AZT was identified as an effective means of preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Needless to mention, most of the efforts in preventing HIV have focused on behavioural interventions. However, there is now an urgent need to invest in the development of biomedical HIV prevention technologies, which would build on existing tools and complement behavioural interventions.
What are New Prevention Technologies?
Firstly, we speak of ‘new’ prevention technologies because we recognize the fact that there technologies that have existed for decades like male condoms. Other existing technologies are female condoms and medical male circumcision. To compliment these technologies, various global efforts are being made to develop new HIV prevention technologies such as vaginal and rectal microbicides, vaccines, pre‐exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and HIV treatment as Prevention. Tremendous progress has been made so far including new trials in research in microbicides and the HIV vaccines.
What is in it for Africa?
With high rates of new HIV infections in Africa, the numbers of people living with HIV and those dying from AIDS related illnesses and the impact of the pandemic on the economic development of the continent, Africa has every right to lead on and push for investments in new prevention technologies of HIV. Moreover, the continent has more to gain from an HIV vaccine or from any technologies that would reduce or completely eliminate the probability of HIV infection. Considering the cost of and time needed in developing such technologies, African governments need to mobilize domestic resources that would go towards research and development in new prevention technologies.
What Can You Do?
Most African governments committed to allocating “at least 2% of the health budget to reinforce national health research systems and create centres of excellence in Africa”. It is the role of every citizen to ensure that their governments are channeling adequate resources to research into development of new HIV privation technologies. What percentage of your national health budget is allocated to research and development?
Time to act is now. Ask your governments what they are doing. Talk to your parliaments to make allocations for science research and development.
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