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Thilo Resenhoeft, Monsters and Critics: Thirty years of AIDS with no vaccine in sight

Thirty years of AIDS with no vaccine in sight
by Thilo Resenhoeft, June 4, 2011

photo: US senator John McCain (R) meets with Phyu Phyu Thin(L) member of the National League for Democracy party (NLD) and leader of the private HIV/AIDS care center which is run by the members of the National League for Democracy party(NLD) at the south Dagon Township, Yangon,Myanmar, 2 June 2011. McCain is part of a US delegation in the country to determine whether the country’s new military-backed government is serious about pursuing economic and political reforms. EPA/NYEIN CHAN NAING

Berlin – Since the first diagnosis 30 years ago of a mysterious disease afflicting homosexual men, nearly 30 million people have died of AIDS, according to figures released Friday by the United Nations, and over 60 million have become infected with the illness.

The disease, which became known as acquired immunedeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and infects heterosexuals as well as homosexuals, remains a long-term challenge for experts in medicine, who have so far failed to come up with a vaccine.

The disease was first written about on June 5, 1981 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The article was written by Michael Gottlieb, of the Medical Center at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and his team.

It was only two pages long, and it spoke about five young homosexual men who suffered from an extremely rare lung infection. They were treated in three different hospitals in Los Angeles, and two of the patients were dead by the time the article was published. At the time, no one knew that their troubles were caused by a virus which was unknown until then.

The text identified as ‘MMWR, 30(21);1-3’ is the first scientific report on this incurable form of immunodeficiency. Since it is the date of publication that counts among scientists, June 5 is something like AIDS’s unfortunate birthday, and the disease is about to turn 30.

AIDS had, however, been present for decades among humans by the time it was first identified. Since then, the virus has infected more than 60 million people, according to the United Nations, with an estimated 7,000 new infections per day, including 1,000 children, at the present time.

In rich countries, expensive pills have deprived the disease of some of its worst effects, by putting a long-time brake on the virus’ propagation within the body. Among the wealthy, AIDS has become something of a chronic disease.

In poor countries, however, many people continue to die of AIDS, for lack of money or pills or both.

Still, the rate of new HIV infections fell by at least 25 per cent in 33 countries 2001-9, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). More than 6 million people in lower- or middle-income countries were getting AIDS treatment by late 2010.

Unlike for measles or rubella, however, there continues to be no vaccine against AIDS to this day.

The make-up of the virus that causeds AIDS – Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV – changes very fast in the course of an infection, so that many slightly different forms of the virus coexist in the blood stream. The immune system has to fight them all, and in the end, its efforts are overpowered.

At the same time, HIV multiplies itself precisely in those immune system cells that are supposed to coordinate the body’s defence, and it kills them. Many of the people infected with the virus eventually die of tuberculosis, for example.

The development of a vaccine against HIV remains an extraordinary challenge for scientists, according to a research team led by the expert Anthony Fauci, of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.

The group said in a recent article in the journal Science of Translational Medicine, however, that the four major attempts to develop a vaccine over the past 12 years have provided useful insights into the immune system. It still seems possible to develop a vaccine against HIV, even though the process is painfully slow, they say.

Many experts are hopeful about the chances of success of new vaccines which are still in the early stages of development. Among others, the memory cells of the immune system are expected to ‘get to know’ some of the proteins of HIV, so that the body can counterattack immediately in case of an infection. Studies on humans and on primates indicate that such ‘training’ can work.

Still, the fight against HIV continues to focus rather on other fronts. In 2010, after 20 years of research, a vaginal gel was for the first time found to have a significant effect in helping prevent HIV infection.

This ‘chemical condom’ is sprayed into the vagina before sex. A pilot study in South Africa on around 900 women showed a reduction of close to 40 per cent in the risk of infection.

The social causes of the global spread of HIV have long been known, and many of them are hard to eliminate.

Drug addicts should be supplied with sterile needles. After birth, newborns should be kept safe from infection by their infected mothers. Girls and women should stand up for their own rights against their lovers or other men who try to force them into unsafe sex. More open discussion and honest explanations would take away the stigmatization of AIDS.

These tasks, and many others like them, are social and political. And they are independent of the timeconsuming efforts of medical researchers.

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