World AIDS Day: HIV tests, vaccine on the spotlight

01Dec 2016
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
World AIDS Day: HIV tests, vaccine on the spotlight

INTERNATIONAL officials are calling for more self-testing as a way to prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as a new vaccine trial gets underway in South Africa.

About 36 million people around the world are currently infected with HIV. Up to 1.6 million of the world's population living with HIV/AIDS reside in Tanzania.

As nations around the globe mark the World AIDS Day today, there are almost 2 million new HIV infections worldwide every year and 1 million people die from the disease annually.

World Health Organisation (WHO) officials estimate about 40 per cent of those with HIV (14 million people) are unaware that they are infected.

This lack of knowledge keeps them from receiving the treatment they need. It also causes them to unknowingly spread the disease to other people.

WHO officials said self-testing is one of the most effective ways to eliminate this problem.

“Millions of people with HIV are still missing out on life-saving treatment, which can also prevent HIV transmission to others,” Dr Margaret Chan, WHO’s director-general, said in a statement ahead of World AIDS Day.

“HIV self-testing should open the door for many more people to know their HIV status and find out how to get treatment and access prevention services.”

With self-test kits, anyone can prick their finger, get a drop of blood, and examine it in the privacy of their home. Results are usually available within 20 minutes.

People who get results showing they have HIV are advised to get confirmation tests at health clinics, where a treatment regimen can also begin.

Not everyone is convinced self-testing kits are the best way to tackle HIV.

In a 2014 study, critics were quoted saying there were a high number of “false-positive” results. They also said the tests may give people in high-risk groups a false sense of security, and encourage them to ignore other preventative measures, such as condoms.

However, WHO officials are steadfast in their belief in self-testing.

“By offering HIV self-testing, we can empower people to find out their own HIV status and also to notify their partners and encourage them to get tested as well,” Dr Gottfried Hirnschall, director of WHO’s Department of HIV/AIDS, said in a statement.

“This should lead to more people knowing their status and being able to act upon it. Self-testing will be particularly relevant for those people who may find it difficult to access testing in clinical settings and might prefer self-testing as their method of choice.”

On another front in the effort to stem HIV, officials announced that the first HIV vaccine efficacy study is underway.

The trial, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will inoculate 5,400 men and women in South Africa. More than 1,000 people in that country become infected with HIV every day.

The current trial is a follow-up to a 2009 vaccine study in Thailand. That vaccine was only 31 percent effective and wore off over time, but it provided clues to the AIDS virus vulnerability, according to a story in The Washington Post.

If the current vaccine proves to be more than 50 percent effective, then drug manufacturers GSK and Sanofi Pasteur could begin licensing agreements with the South African government, according to the Post.

The South Africans in the current trial are HIV-negative and are between 18 and 35 years old.

Half of them will receive five vaccinations over the next year and then be monitored for two years.

The other half of the volunteers will receive a placebo as part of a control group.

“If deployed alongside our current armory of proven HIV prevention tools, a safe and effective vaccine could be the final nail in the coffin for HIV,” Dr Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the NIH, said in a statement.

“Even a moderately effective vaccine would significantly decrease the burden of HIV disease over time in countries and populations with high rates of HIV infection, such as South Africa.”

Top Stories