Volume 95, Issue 30

Thursday, October 25, 2001
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Searching for a new approach: The alternative side to living with HIV

HIV and AIDS: we need to start listening again

Treatment and prevention

Searching for a new approach: The alternative side to living with HIV

By Mandy Seidenberg
Gazette Writer

Medical experts agree, the development of affordable vaccines is crucial to fighting the on-going global AIDS epidemic.

The disease is posing a huge problem in developing regions such as Africa where – especially in sub-Saharan countries – AIDS rates are astronomical, said Stephen Morris, a spokesman for the federal government's Canadian International Development Agency.

"In Botswana for example, 70 per cent of women in the 15-24-year-old age range are infected with HIV."

Morris said the organization spends $30 million annually providing preventative information to developing countries.

CIDA focuses its attention on high-risk populations, such as young people, sex workers, homosexuals, injection drug users and travellers, he explained, adding travellers have significantly contributed to the spread of HIV.

"For example, a truck driver might hire an infected prostitute at one stop, then carry the virus on to the next stop or to his family on the other side of the continent," Morris said.

Tracking the effectiveness of preventative education is difficult because it is impossible to determine when an individual contracted the virus and if infection occurred before or after receiving preventative information, he said.

The Canadian government's funding for the battle against the global AIDS epidemic is slated to increase over the next four years, Morris said. "Eighty million dollars was allotted for 2005, compared to $20 million last year."

Quebec-based Doctors Without Borders deals with the education and treatment of those who have already contracted the virus, said Marie-Hlne Bonin, co-ordinator for the Access to Essential Medicines Campaign for DWB Canada. "Prevention and treatment go hand-in-hand," she said, adding it is sometimes difficult to inspire hope and action in people.

"If there is no hope for treatment, it is hard to get people to go for testing."

Funding shortages have made access to treatment even more difficult in developing nations. "Pharmaceutical companies are profit-making companies uninterested in [the] market [of developing countries]," she said.

Patented HIV vaccines could prove to be too expensive, making them inaccessible to developing nations, she said.

Silvie Letendre, corporate affairs manager for Pfizer Canada, disagrees. Pfizer produces medication for AIDS related illnesses and infection, which they in turn donate to a number of nations on the African continent.

"[In Canada], patients have access [to medication] by either private coverage or by the government. In Africa, we've donated it because there's just not the money or the structure in place," Letendre said.

"We certainly believe it is our responsibility [to help]," she said, adding the donation is on-going and that Pfizer is not alone among drug companies who donate medication to Africa.

Bill Thompson, director of the HIV clinic at St. Joseph's Hospital, said cost can be a problem, but the technology required to produce HIV drugs is quite expensive.

"HIV drugs are different than other drugs. They are not made like penicillin where you can just make batches of the drug. Years of research and technology have gone into creating these medications," he said.

Treatment and prevention must be recognized as necessary partners, Bonin said, adding she has been struck by the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic in developing nations. "[The victims] looked terrible. It is [disgusting] to see millions of people condemned to death when they could have treatment if they lived [in North America]."

Yong Kang, a microbiology and immunology professor at Western, is currently developing two vaccines he hopes will prevent and treat HIV infection.

The vaccines take two different scientific approaches to build up the immune system against HIV: the first uses genetically-modified HIV to produce large amounts of the virus, that can then be killed off and injected into the patient to build up antibodies.

The second uses an alternative virus – an adenovirus – as a vehicle to carry the HIV gene and protein shell so the body will recognize HIV if exposed to it in the future. "The adenovirus approach is somewhat unique," Kang said, noting he has not seen anyone else in the field using it.

There are still years of work to be done before these vaccines will be ready for human testing, let alone regular use, Kang added.

In the meantime, the leading method for AIDS prevention continues to be education. The 21st century can only hope the world will be a receptive student.

Graphic by Chris Hodge

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