By Sanday Chongo Kabange in CAPE TOWN, South Africa
In the midst of a sharp and lingering global economic recession and indications that world leaders are retreating on previous commitments to universal access to HIV prevention and treatment, the more than 5,000 AIDS researchers, implementers and community leaders that recently convened at the Cape Town Convention Centre in the South Africa resort city of Cape Town for the 5th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention warned of dire public health consequences resulting from poor financial and material support on the global fight against AIDS due to recession.
The delegates warned that reduced support to HIV/AIDS related research, programmes and projects would have severe implications on the global fight against AIDS. There is mounting fears that the economic crisis has reduced financing to various health project.
AIDS activists such as the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, contended that much support by wealthy nations like the G8 are channelling funds to bailing out collapsing institutions or other programme such as climate change or terrorism.
The alliance cited the use of US$ 700 000 000 000 by Barrack Obama’s administration to bail-out collapsing banks, Robert Mugabe’s lavish spending on his 85th birth of US$ 250 000 and Yoweri Museveni’s procurement of a private presidential jet at the cost of US$ 48 000 000, as some of the funds that could have been spend on finding a cure for AIDS, which has taken lives for decades.
IAS President Julio Montaner, who is IAS 2009 Chair and Director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Vancouver, Canada said, “Despite the recession, the global response to HIV – including the commitment of sufficient resources to achieve universal access to HIV prevention and treatment, fully fund AIDS research and strengthen underlying health systems – cannot be put in a holding pattern. If we don’t move forward, we will rapidly lose ground. That is the reality we face at this pivotal moment in HIV scale-up”.
The IAS Conference series focuses on the translation of research into practice, particularly in low and middle-income countries such as Zambia.
IAS 2009 Conference South African co-chair Hoosen Coovadia said the conference took place at the right time and place.
“With reports of interruptions in drug supply and shortages here (South Africa) and elsewhere foremost on our minds, we must ensure that health delivery systems on our continent (Africa) are effective and adequately funded in order to prevent needless deaths and countless preventable infections,” he said.
The emphasis on the real-world application of science was also reflected during remarks delivered by South Africa’s Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.
Motlanthe stated that South Africa has made significant progress towards finding a cure for AIDS. He explained that for the first time, a South Africa generated vaccines is currently undergoing trails in the United States of America, to determine its efficacy.
He also announced the launch of trials of the first AIDS vaccine created by a developing country, South Africa. The new vaccine, developed with help from the United States, targets the specific HIV strain that has hit South African people hard and produced the worst AIDS epidemic in the world.
He said the launch is a milestone for the country’s scientists who had had to overcome deep prejudice and scepticism from colleagues as well as some of South Africa’s past political leaders who shocked the world with unscientific views on the disease.
The vaccine trial is called “Phambili,” which means “moving forward” in the Xhosa language. Volunteers will be healthy HIV negative males and females, aged 18 to 35 years, who are sexually active and not pregnant.
The trial design will compare the test vaccine to a placebo (a harmless substance) and, to eliminate bias, neither volunteers nor researchers will know who receives the vaccine and who receives the placebo. The trial will last about four years. The trial has been approved by the South African Medicines Control Council and the South African Department of Agriculture and has been reviewed by the US Food and Drug Administration. Approval has also been given or is pending by institutional ethics and bio-safety committees at all the trial sites. In addition, there will be an independent Data and Safety Monitoring Board who will carefully monitor the safety of the trial participants.
South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign General Secretary Viyuseka Dubula, who spoke as a representative of the community, highlighted progress and challenges recorded since the 13th International AIDS Conference that took place in Durban in 2000, an event that is widely credited with having focused global attention on geographic disparities in HIV treatment and jumpstarting the move to expand access in low-income countries such as Zambia.
AIDS Free World co-director Stephen Lewis and former United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa argued that what was desperately needed today was unrelenting and informed voices of advocacy.
Lewis called upon the scientific community to use both their scientific expertise and their voices to respond to the pandemic.