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America promises HIV cure

By Lerato Matheka

The American government, through the President’s Emer­gency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), has announced plans to develop an HIV vac­cine and a cure.

“We’re laying the groundwork for eventually eliminating HIV, as we develop a vaccine and a cure,” US AIDS Ambassador Deborah L. Birx announced this week.

The world renowned medical expert and leader on HIV/AIDS issues was speaking during a teleconference with the sub-Sa­haran journalists in the Afri­can continent on Tuesday in commemoration of 15 years of PEPFAR in Africa.

Birx is the Coordinator of the United States Government Ac­tivities to Combat HIV/AIDS and Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy.

She noted that, as PEPFAR was celebrating 15 years of saving lives, they were laying the groundwork for eventually eliminating HIV, by developing a vaccine and a cure.

“I think you know NIH – our National Institutes of Health – works very hard on developing a cure and a vaccine. So, PEP­FAR, 15 years ago, was born out of the belief that we could make the impossible possible, and I think today we’re seeing that becoming a real reality in Africa and around the world,” she said.

PEPFAR is the US govern­ment’s initiative programme designed primarily for Africa to address the global epidemic and save lives of people infect­ed and affected by HIV.

Birx stressed that over the next three years, a whole series of countries in sub-Saharan Africa should have made prog­ress.

“…or at least figure out how, through governments, and communities. I keep empha­sising communities because we are only as successful as the community’s ability and willingness to access the healthcare delivery system and to become diagnosed and on treatment. And so over the next three years we think we’ll have a whole series of coun­tries that would have made this kind of progress. I mean, we’re talking about in less than two decades going from really no opportunities for treatment or prevention on the continent to a place where we’re talking about where the epidemic is be­ing controlled and what it looks like in the out years,” she said.

The Ambassador recounted that since its inception, PEP­FAR had prevented infection of over 2.2 million babies, who were born HIV-free from HIV-positive mothers, “and this is a huge accomplishment across sub-Saharan Africa, and you can see many countries are showing a dramatic 80-90% de­cline in the number of babies born with HIV.

“At the same time, we contin­ue to support orphans and vul­nerable children; really, over 6.4 million of those orphans and vulnerable children, but changing the focus of that pro­gramme to really ensure that children can thrive and remain HIV-free. We have also… in­creased our investment in pre­vention.

“I think many of you know that Africa is undergoing an incredible demographic youth bulge, with about twice as many 15-24-year olds on the conti­nent as there was at the begin­ning of the epidemic. Because of that, we’ve really strength­ened our prevention activities, ensuring that boys and young men are circumcised, because that decreases the risk of STIs, but most importantly, HIV, by more than 60%, and we believe that to be lifelong. We addi­tionally increased our invest­ment to prevent infections of young women, particularly the 15-24 year olds. That is a pub­lic-private partnership that’s been extraordinarily import­ant to us.”

Birx, however. pointed out that it really comes down to how the global communities are going to ensure young people see themselves in the healthcare delivery clinics and see themselves going to the clinic to maintain and have good, healthy, and thriving lives.

“What do I mean by that? This is outside of coming to the health clinic when you are desperately ill or when you’re injured. This is coming to the health clinic for this critical preventive information, where you can be tested for a series of diseases; for the ones that you don’t have, be counselled on how to prevent those dis­eases in the future, and those that you do have, whether it’s hypertension or HIV or ma­laria; that you get treatment at that moment in time and see yourself as preventing the consequences of progression of disease, whether it’s HIV or hypertension that could lead to stroke, or cardiovascular dis­ease.

“These are the kinds of chal­lenges that we have in front of us, and our success will be determined on whether we can create awareness in the com­munity that the health centres are there not only for illness, but there for their long-term health. If we can do that over the next three or four years, I am confident that 15 years from now we will be talking about an epidemic with a much smaller footprint in sub-Saha­ran Africa, and I hope, frankly, a vaccine and a cure so that we can be talking about elimina­tion and eradication of HIV. That would be within less than 50 years from the origin of finding this virus to the actual ability to eliminate with a vac­cine and a cure,” she said.

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