Preventing AIDS: On the Global Horizon

At last there’s promising news on the horizon for the prevention of one of the most frightening and devastating diseases of our era.

Harriet L. Robinson and her team of researchers at the Emory University Vaccine Center and the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta just reported breakthrough findings in the March 9, 2001 edition of the journal, Science.

Robinson’s team tested a new AIDS vaccine in 28 monkeys; 4 of whom received placebos. Seven months after a 3-step vaccination, all monkeys were exposed to very high viral loads – significantly greater amounts of virus than with typical human exposure. Within another 7 months, all 4 control animals developed AIDS and subsequently died. All of the vaccinated monkeys, although infected with the virus, were not ill. Their immune systems were able to control the infection.

According to Robinson, “Our results show that we can protect monkeys against an HIV-like virus using an immunization scheme that is practical for use in people.” Human clinical trials are expected to begin within a year.

While the long-term effects of this approach are not yet known, the data appear promising. Despite early results, senior scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are enthusiastic. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and Dr. Peggy Johnston, head of the AIDS vaccine program at the NIH have favorably commented about the potential future implications of this research. Their enthusiasm also extends to a substantial research effort that is finally underway world-wide.

A recent review of the literature disclosed promising information that demonstrates a formidable commitment to the war against AIDS. It is now a fact that more than 35 prototype AIDS vaccines are presently in various stages of testing. Researchers at Harvard are also extending their investigations of a vaccine that appears successful in early animal studies. In England, scientists recently began testing an HIV vaccine on humans in their country and in Kenya. Researchers at two pharmaceutical companies, Merck and Co. and Wyeth-Lederle, recently announced safety trials in human volunteers.

Public-private partnerships are also being developed and supported by a budget that includes projections of more than $70 million over the next 5 years according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. This figure, however, is not enough to make a serious impact when one considers the overall global impact of AIDS.

From a business perspective, it’s difficult at best to encourage substantial investment. Potential profitability is predictably limited or even non-existent due to the extraordinary costs of vaccine development coupled with the fact that most HIV infected people live in third world nations.

Yet from a philanthropic standpoint, the call to action is finally being taken seriously.

At a recent Microsoft World Economic Forum, billionaire Bill Gates pledged $100 million from his foundation for AIDS vaccine research. Yahoo! has also committed $5 million over three years to the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. Without regard for potential profitability, these philanthropists have been moved by extraordinary global statistics which reveal that:

  • more than 3/4 million people in the US have already contracted the virus.
  • more than 400,000 Americans have died of AIDS.
  • more than 5 million people were infected with HIV worldwide last year.
  • more than 36 million people on the planet are living with the AIDS virus.
  • more than 3 million people died of AIDS in the year 2000.
  • more than 21 million people in the world have died because of AIDS.
  • more than 13 million children have been orphaned due to AIDS.

Sources: HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report and the UNAIDS Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, “AIDS Epidemic Update December 2000” and “Report on the global HIV/AIDS epidemic June 2000.”

The real impact of AIDS, even with these statistics, is hard to put into perspective. In certain southern African countries life expectancy has dropped from over 65 to below 40 in areas where more than 25% of the population are infected (according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 1998 World Population Profile).

While criticism from multiple perspectives abounds concerning almost every conceivable aspect of this issue, it is finally obvious that we are making progress in the war against AIDS. Research breakthroughs are occurring and the light on the horizon illuminating a successful vaccine is becoming visible.

From a global perspective we are also witnessing a remarkable humanistic commitment from the “haves” to the “have nots.” The Gates donation, which exceeds the entire NIH budget over the next 5 years, has all the potential in the world to make a difference. It provides WINDOWS® for a healthier future
Mind Over Matter!

© 2000 Barry Bittman,
MD all rights reserved

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Written by Barry Bittman MD

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