AIDS 'could be eliminated in our lifetime'

HIV treatment as prevention strategy considered a “game changer” but lack of funding prevents implementation.

When Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, Director of the Louis Pasteur Institute in France and winner of the Nobel Prize in 2008 for her discovery of HIV, first isolated the HIV virus in 1982, she had no idea she had stumbled onto the greatest epidemic of our time.

“Initially, we thought only a small group of people were affected by the disease,” Barre-Sinoussi told Al Jazeera. “Very naively, we did not realise the magnitude of the epidemic.”

She was right to be wary. Since then, 60 million people have been infected with HIV and over 30 million have died, akin to half the population of the United Kingdom.

But Barre-Sinoussi was not easily disheartened. “I believe in science. If not now, in the long term, we will find other strategies. My dream is to see the end of HIV before I die.”

Her belief was not unfounded.

The dawn of 2012 brought with it the hope of a new breakthrough published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011: life-saving anti-retroviral treatment (ARV), the gold standard for treatment of HIV/AIDS will also prevent transmission of HIV to sexual partners with 96 per cent effectiveness.

These “serodiscordant couples”, as they are known, make up 30 per cent of the global HIV burden. This research is considered a game changer. Such high success rates are almost unheard of in scientific literature, so much so that the trial, known as HPTN 052, was concluded prematurely.

“It is a dream for us to have a treatment with the capacity to cure. It means we can use the tools that we already have at our disposal,” Barre-Sinoussi told Al Jazeera.

The treatment as prevention strategy (TasP) has been described by Science magazine as the biggest discovery of 2011, a sentiment echoed by the Time, Lancet and Doctors without Borders. Experts in the field argue it may be the scientific breakthrough of the decade.

“TasP is a beautiful discovery,” Elly Katibara, President of the International AIDS Society, told Al Jazeera. “In the process of treating people, you are doing two jobs.”

In 2005, the Universal Access Pledge was made by every UN member state to provide universal access to HIV prevention, treatment and care for all who need it by 2010. The goal was simple but ambitious: zero new transmissions by the year 2015. Though no “silver bullet” existed for the eradication of this disease, nations were committed to the available treatment and prevention strategies, with the hopes that investment in research would one day yield something more effective.

New England Journal of Medicine: Prevention of HIV-1 Infection with Early Antiretroviral Therapy

New England Journal of Medicine Editorial: Antiretroviral Treatment as Prevention

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