Frustrating News From
The AIDS Front
DURBAN, South Africa(AFP) - The top brains in the war against AIDS meet here from Sunday to take stock of a campaign marked by a mounting death toll and few glimmers of hope.
If the operation has an equivalent in military history, today's phase would be like the Battle of the Somme in September 1916 or Stalingrad in winter 1942: ponderous, meatgrinding combat with no talk of there being an end in sight.
The 11,000 delegates expected for the International AIDS Conference, which for the first time is taking place in a developing country, are expecting a sombre tableau to emerge:
-- HIV infection rates have stabilised in wealthy countries thanks to aggressive education campaigns, but are surging dangerously in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Asian subcontinent.
Of the 34.3 million people living with HIV or full-blown AIDS, 24.5 million live below the Sahara, according to the UN agency UNAIDS.
-- A triple "cocktail" of anti-retroviral drugs to treat human immune-deficiency virus, previously hailed in some quarters as an HIV-buster, has been found to have disappointing limits.
The therapy suppresses the virus but does not eradicate it. The virus retreats to "reservoirs" in the body, and bounces back as soon as the treatment is stopped.
On top of that, the drugs, at 2,900 dollars per person per year, are way too dear for the poorer countries being ravaged by the disease.
"Ninety percent of the effective drugs are in the North and 90 percent of the infections are in the South," a US researcher points out.
-- The search for a vaccine is painfully slow. The earliest introduction would be 2003, and the product may offer protection far below 100 percent.
As if to convey the global sense of frustration, South African President Thabo Mbeki ignited a row in April by suggesting that conventional science, rooted in Western culture, was blinkered in its approach to AIDS.
He then included on a 33-person AIDS advisory panel several dissidents who claim the disease is caused by poverty, malnourishment and other Third World ills.
Mbeki was handed a resounding slap by the world's scientific community last weekend, with the publication of a "Durban Declaration," signed by 5,000 doctors and researchers, none of them from commercial companies.
They slammed "revisionist" theories about HIV/AIDS and acidly maintained: "Research, not myths, will lead to the development of more effective and cheaper treatments and, it is hoped, a vaccine."
Not all the news from the AIDS war is bad. Day by day, more and more knowledge is being acquired about the foe, especially thanks to the new tool of molecular biology.
From being an anonymous threat two decades ago that appeared to have come out of nowhere, the virus now has a face, a name and a past.
We know more than ever about the virus's two main groups, their subgroups and its ability to mutate. Supercomputers running programmes based on a steady rate of evolution suggest that the disease may have leapt from ape to Man in
More, too, is known about how HIV is transmitted, something that can help prevention campaigns.
Research published last month said circumcised men face a much lower risk of catching the virus than their uncircumcised counterparts. The inner skin of the foreskin, which is pulled back and exposed during intercourse, is rich with cell receptors that HIV can latch onto.
In addition, some promising therapies are emerging from the lab, including a gene treatment that has been successfully used on monkeys by a Washington-based team, the Research Institute for Genetic and Human Therapy (RIGHT).
The International AIDS conference is held every two years, with regional conferences in between.
The six-day event in Durban, the 13th in the series, is likely to dwell on the impact of AIDS in developing countries -- the lack of resources for treatment and education, the tragic phenomenon of AIDS orphans and the crippling cost of the epidemic on the economy.
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