Here I Am: Advocating for a vaccine in the fight against AIDS

Here I Am: Advocating for a vaccine in the fight against AIDS
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The hope of a vaccine for HIV/AIDS cannot be underestimated. At the moment, we can control the disease if we can find HIV+ people early enough before they get sick and get them on treatment - but they will live with this disease for the rest of their lives and will still face significant struggles.

Colleagues in the advocacy movement approached me about sharing some thoughts around World AIDS Vaccine Day which is coming up this week. Even though there have been setbacks along the road to an AIDS vaccine, that road has massively changed what we know about the disease and how to treat it - we have to continue to travel that road to find the answers.

Rosemary Mburu of World AIDS Campaign International and Sydney Hushie of the Global Youth Coalition on HIV and AIDS are featured here today about the importance of not losing hope, redoubling our efforts and why a vaccine for AIDS remains both a possibility and a need in our collective battle against this disease.

Here we are: Advocating for a vaccine to bend the curve in the fight against AIDS

May 18 marks World AIDS Vaccine Day (WAVD), which serves to highlight the ongoing need for a preventive vaccine to help bring an end to the AIDS pandemic. This year, we face WAVD with disheartening news on 2 fronts - data from a large scale trial which showed no protection and potential issues surrounding what was thought to be a promising vector. No one feels these disappointments more acutely than those of us living in Africa ,more so personally infected and affected where the epidemic is still raging.

WAVD provides us with an opportunity to demonstrate that our resolve and commitment to ending the epidemic in Africa has not wavered. We understand that setbacks are part of the process of research, discovery and innovation, though this should not make us complacent.. While recent data can and must impact how researchers think about and approach vaccine design and testing, what does not change is the fact that the world still desperately needs an AIDS vaccine.

Here's what else hasn't changed:

  • Women continue to get infected at disproportionate rates than men;
  • Youth in Africa are coming of age surrounded by risk and with the odds of acquiring HIV stacked against them;
  • Those born and living with HIV twenty years ago, are now in their adult lives and need to witness the dream of a vaccine come true
  • Africa continues to bear the brunt of the AIDS epidemic, with ~70 % of new infections, roughly 23.8 million infected persons in Africa*.

Africa at large, women and young people in particular, need access to existing, proven prevention options, as well as new prevention tools that better meet their needs - an AIDS vaccine is such a tool. Mark Dybul, Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (which doesn't directly fund vaccine research) has spoken often about how critical a vaccine is in the fight to control AIDS.

On WAVD, civil society organizations in Africa have a message for HIV vaccine scientists around the world: you need to keep going. We understand, all too well, that the road towards progress knows both success and disappointment - you can't have lived through this epidemic and missed that lesson. But we also understand the power of hope, persistence,stable funding for vaccine development and hard work. The evolution of life-saving antiretroviral therapy has taught us this much.

We also have a message for world leaders: you need to do more. African civil society calls upon decision makers around the world to demonstrate their commitment to this effort by way of increased investment and prioritization of research for new preventive technologies against HIV. African leaders must increase national investment in domestic research programs to compliment global efforts.

In 2013, HIV continues to be an unfolding tragedy for millions of people around the world -- 2.5 million people were infected with HIV last year alone. Many of the newly infected are living in circumstances devoid of the power to protect themselves. HIV strikes people in the prime of their life -- impacting families, orphaning children and depleting national workforces needed for development. A vaccine would offer us a lifeline - for some of us, perhaps our only shot at protection.

An AIDS vaccine, as part of a comprehensive response, is our best hope at ending the AIDS epidemic, the greatest public health crisis of our time. A comprehensive response includes support and funding for vaccine work, but it also means the highly effective Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria needs to reach its $15 billion replenishment target while we wait for new tools. This means we will have less work, not more, once a vaccine becomes available. If we continue to work at the same level, with the same tools, new infections will soon begin to rise again.

We must remember there are sufficient reasons to be optimistic about the development of an AIDS vaccine. Clinical data released in 2009 has shown us that a protective AIDS vaccine is possible -- it is no longer a matter of if, but when. Communities throughout Africa have shown their commitment to this effort by participating and supporting clinical trials. Governments throughout Africa are beginning to prioritize HIV vaccine research, recognizing it as a sustainable and an affordable solution to ending the epidemic. Multilateral efforts like the Global Fund have had a tremendous impact on reducing new infections and ensuring treatment and care for those who are currently infected -- if fully funded it will continue to do so.

We must also remember that the development of any vaccine is characterized by a long, arduous path to an eventual product. Indeed, every vaccine on the market today had some degree of disappointment along the road to licensure. But the effort has been worth it. Vaccines have proven themselves, time and again, to be the single most powerful public health tool at our disposal. Small-pox, polio, measles --- it's thanks to vaccines that we have been able to control and, in some cases, eradicate these diseases. A vaccine will finally allow us to 'turn the tide' on new infections.

So, let's put recent events in perspective: we must be sure to understand new data, learn from past successes and setbacks, and then redouble our efforts to find a safe and effective AIDS vaccine.

Because we need one, now more than ever.

Rosemary Mburu, WAC: Rosemary Mburu is the Executive Director of World AIDS Campaign (WAC) International, which works through advocacy and campaigning in partnership with a range of constituencies to improve HIV and health outcomes in Africa. WAC also hosts the Africa Civil Society Platform on Health.

Sydney Hushie GYCA-Africa: Sydney Hushie is a member of the Africa Civil Society platform on Health and a Program Officer of GYCA. Sydney has actively engaged with young people in Africa and across the globe providing capacity building opportunities and engaging in political advocacy to ensure that young people are active participants in the fight against HIV and AIDS.


Lucy Chesire: TB-HIV advocate from Kenya Board Member of the Global Fund Board Communities Delegation.

About the Here I Am campaign:The Here I Am campaign is a global call on world leaders to save millions of lives by supporting a fully funded Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Here I Am brings the voices of people that are directly affected by AIDS, TB and malaria into dialogue about decisions that affect their lives and the lives of millions of others in their countries. Through video testimonies from all over the world, campaign ambassador advocacy, online actions and on-the-ground mobilizations, the Here I Am campaign is building collective power to end three of the world's most deadly diseases.

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