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Is AIDS vaccine on its way?

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By James Hall - SWAZI OBSERVER-30-Sep-2009

FOR years the achievement of a vaccine to protect an uninfected person from contracting HIV has been the goal of AIDS researchers.

A safe and effective vaccine is seen by many AIDS and health workers as the only way to stop the spread of AIDS in some areas. Attempting “behaviour change” has not work. Education about the nature of AIDS and how to safeguard against the disease has not worked. With these two key elements of AIDS prevention having failed to curb the tide of new HIV infections, hope has turned to a simple and easy way to protect people who will not protect themselves.


In the past, vaccines have saved more lives and resources than virtually any other public health intervention. They have eradicated smallpox, have nearly eradicated polio and have greatly diminished the human suffering caused by many other diseases. A vaccine is a defensive medicine placed in a healthy body targeted at particular disease viruses, so if and when those viruses are introduced into the body, the vaccine is then ready to recognise and defeat them. It is the medicinal equivalent of having your own armed forces in your bloodstream ready to attack and kill any enemy that invades your body. That is why there is an interest amongst health professionals worldwide to reports that for the first time a vaccine has been tested on people and has reduced the rate of HIV infection by about 30 %.

30 % is far from 100 percent, but the excitement comes from the fact that this was achieved at all. For years, HIV was considered simply unstoppable, and AIDS incurable. The virus is too complex, researchers said and no vaccine is possible against it. Nevertheless, researchers continued to work away, until news was released from Thailand on Thursday last week about a vaccine that even its makers admit they are unsure about how it works or why.

Everyone agrees that a commercial product is years away. But instead of saying an AIDS vaccine is “impossible” and will “never happen,” scientists are now speaking about achieving an AIDS vaccine “within our lifetimes.” Such an achievement would save tens of thousands of lives here in Swaziland, and millions of lives globally. The AIDS virus infects an estimated 33 million people worldwide and has killed 25 million since it was identified in the 1980s.


“The result of the study is a very important step for developing an AIDS vaccine,” Thailand’s Minister for Health Withaya Kaewparadai told a news conference in Bangkok. “It is the first time in the world that we have found a vaccine that can prevent HIV infection.” Activists and researchers expressed their excitement. “The outcome is very exciting news and a significant scientific achievement,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, chief executive officer of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. “It is the first demonstration that a candidate AIDS vaccine provides benefit in humans.”

How the Experimental Vaccine is Made

The vaccine tested in Thailand is a combination of French pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Pasteur’s ALVAC canary pox/HIV vaccine and the failed HIV vaccine AIDSVAX, made by a San Francisco company called VaxGen and now owned by the nonprofit Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases. The trial was sponsored by the U.S. government and conducted by the Thailand Ministry of Public Health. The vaccine was found to cut the risk of infection by 31.2 % among 16 402 volunteers over three years.

This is a first step. But what is remarkable is that this HIV vaccine was declared “ineffective” six years ago. In 2003, AIDS activists condemned further research into this vaccine, saying it was a waste of money. But the researchers persisted. Much more work has to be done, and AIDS activists are being careful to caution against too high expectations. The Geneva-based World Health Organisation and the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS, or UNAIDS, both welcomed the news of the vaccine tests in Thailand but said these do not represent a present-day solution.


Of course, the real danger is that people may expect a vaccine against HIV infection will be available tomorrow. Such an unrealistic notion would give them even more reason to engage in unprotected sex, disregard condom use and pursue unsafe sexual practices like multiple sex partners. It would be like all the smokers of the world who refuse to give up tobacco, even though it is scientifically proven to threaten the lives of smokers and all who are around smokers because they like to say, “Science will come up with a cure.” With all the resources directed at cancer research, no doubt someday there will be a cure for this killer disease. And one day there will be a vaccine against HIV infection and perhaps even a cure for AIDS.

This week’s news out of Thailand brings that day (which some people said would never come) a little bit closer. But it is important to remember that day is not today, and refusing to follow simple and proven ways to prevent HIV infection is fatal.

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Note: The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and DO NOT necessarily reflect those of Swazilive.com

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