Toward an Aids-free world

NOT LONG ago, the very notion of an Aids-free world was one many of us working in the field did not dare dream of.

By Francoise Barre Sinoussi And ?adeeba Kamarulzaman (Issues)

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Published: Thu 22 Nov 2012, 8:39 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:45 PM

Now there is a new sense of optimism, driven in large part by some extraordinary scientific advances that have elevated the potential of anti-retroviral treatment as prevention to official health policy. They have been complemented by the development of an international scientific strategy and alliance working towards an HIV cure – an idea that until recently many believed was redundant.

“Getting to Zero” has been the slogan for World Aids Day (December 1) since 2011 and will remain so through until 2015, coinciding with the Millennium Development Goal target of halting and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV/Aids.

This offers a starting point for some more sanguine reflection on how, amid generalised talk of zeros, targets and goals, we can so easily lose sight of the extraordinary barriers that prevent them being reached in the first place.

Asia is a case in point. There is no single “Asian epidemic” – each country in the region faces a different situation. In Cambodia, for instance, one of only eight countries globally to have achieved universal access to anti-retroviral treatment, national HIV prevalence has dropped from three per cent a decade ago to around 0.5 per cent through concerted government and NGO campaigns. Yet a breakdown of that figure reveals an HIV prevalence among drug users in the country of around 20 per cent.

Injecting drugs is a major driver of HIV transmission in many countries in Asia. According to UNAIDS, about 16 per cent of people who inject drugs in Asia are living with HIV In some countries, this estimate is considerably higher: 30 to 50 per cent in Thailand, 32 to 58 per cent in Vietnam and 22 to 28 per cent in Malaysia.

If we are serious about reaching zero, we have to get even more serious about tackling stigma that not only impacts injecting drug users but also gay men and sex workers. A host of new evidence is pointing to new and worrying HIV infection spikes among gay men in countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines. In some cases these account for the bulk of new infections, yet funding for programmes to reach out to these communities does not reflect the fast-changing nature of the epidemic.

It is also untenable that at a time when we have achieved significant global coverage of the prevention of mother-to-child transmission services, only around 30 per cent of pregnant women are offered an HIV test in East, South and Southeast Asia.

It is deeply worrying that across these regions only around 16 per cent of HIV-infected pregnant women receive anti-retrovirals to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. We need to closely analyse why current services are not reaching mothers.

Yes, we do have the science to eventually get to zero and end Aids but the road is full of barriers, bolstered by the stigma of marginalised groups. In many cases that stigma is driven by government policies that continue to maintain and enforce repressive policies toward those groups. Stigma and discrimination have always been the main drivers of HIV/Aids. It has been a combination of community activism, evidence-based policy programming, political courage and scientific developments based on the three pillars of prevention, treatment and care that has successfully tackled those barriers.

Research has led to dramatic progress over the past years, in particular in developing strategies to use anti-retroviral molecules as prevention tools. Vaccine research is also greatly advancing.

More than ever, we need a fourth pillar: an HIV cure. We still have some way to go to completing the cure puzzle, but some of the pieces are ever so slowly beginning to fall into place.

We now have more knowledge, technology and scientific tools at our disposal to seriously attempt to put the pieces together. Some 15 trials on HIV cure related research are currently taking place, the results of which over the coming years will help to inform us if we are on the right track towards getting to zero and ending Aids.

Francoise Barre-Sinoussi is director of the Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris and president of the International AIDS Society. She was awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the co-discovery of HIV. Adeeba Kamarulzaman is the director of the Center of Excellence for Research in Aids at University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur

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